The recent U.S. Supreme Court case of Marshall v. Rodgers addressed the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. The Court in this case had to determine whether a trial judge has the discretion to refuse a defendant‘s request for the reappointment of counsel after he has already waived a right to counsel.
The defendant in this case was charged with multiple felony counts. Interestingly, the defendant waived his right to counsel, thereby discharging his attorney and proceeding pro se. He later changed his mind requesting that new counsel be appointed. He did this not once but three times.
Ultimately, he proceeded to trial on his own without an attorney. He was convicted by the jury at which point he again asserted his right to counsel for the purposes of filing a motion for a new trial.
The trial court refused his request. He moved for a new trial orally and then by written motion. However, his motion apparently was lacking in substance and was denied. He appealed to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled in his favor that indeed he did have the right to reassert his right to counsel post-trial.
The Supreme Court disagreed. Interestingly, the Court did not hold that the defendant‘s position lacked merit. Instead, it disagreed with the 6th Circuit‘s approach in reaching its opinion. Specifically, the Court disagreed with the 6th Circuit‘s extrapolation of “clearly established federal law” by drawing from numerous Circuit Court and Supreme Court cases that were not directly on point.
On the other hand, they did agree that a defendant has a right to assistance of counsel at all critical stages of a prosecution. It further agreed that a post-trial motion would in fact be a critical stage. The Court further recognized the tension between a defendant‘s right to counsel and right to waive representation. The Court acknowledged the problem with equation pro se representation with effective assistance of counsel. The 6th Amendment requires that people accused of crimes have the effective assistance of counsel and pro se representation is hardly effective in most cases.
The Court reversed the 6th Circuit. However, the Court expressly stated it “expresses no view on the merits of the underlying Sixth Amendment principle the respondent urges. And it does not suggest or imply that the underlying issue, if presented on direct review, would be insubstantial.”
Instead the Court disagreed with the reasoning upon which the Court of Appeals reached its decision. In short, the Court did not agree with the Court‘s process of arriving at what it had determined to be “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”
The Court therefore reversed the 6th Circuit and sent the case back down for further proceedings. These proceedings no doubt will be addressed at finding the clearly established federal law on the specific issue of appointment, waiver and reappointment of counsel. We will have to wait to see how this turns out in the next round through the courts.