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Tons of Great News for Some Criminal Defendants

This has been a banner week for criminal defendants. In yesterday's Supreme Court decision in US v. Gonzalez, a 5-4 majority decision authored by Scalia overturned a conviction where the Court denied the defendant his Sixth Amendment right to representation by the lawyer of his choice. As reported in this summary, Gonzalez sought to retain an out-of-state attorney, John Low, to represent him on criminal charges in Missouri. The judge rejected Low's pro hac vice application, so Gonzalez proceeded with another attorney who had no criminal experience (Norm Pattis of Crime and Federalism questions Low's motives in referring the case to an inexperienced colleague). Not surprisingly, Gonzalez lost and then appealed, arguing that he was denied his choice of counsel. Scalia and the majority agreed. The Court found that defendants have a right to counsel of their choosing and, more importantly, that denial of the right to counsel constitutes harmful error, period. By contrast, Alito, who wrote the dissent, argued that the Court should have required Gonzalez to show that a different outcome would have resulted had he been allowed to proceed with Mr. Low.

And this morning, Peter Lattman of the Wall Street Journal Law Blog had the scoop on a "hot off the presses" ruling by federal district court Judge Lewis Kaplan, who found that that prosecutors violated the constitutional rights of a group of former KPMG partners in pressuring the firm not to advance them legal fees (I originally blogged about the matter here in the context of how much we should expect corporations to stand up for customer or employee rights when government comes knocking on the corporate door). And there's more commentary on the ruling at White Collar Crime Blog (noting that the KPMG case hits home the reality of how costly corporate crime matters are to defend) and Concurring Opinions, where Dave Hoffman suggests that the government's pressure on KPMG to deny indemnification to employees denies them of their choice of counsel and constitutes harmelss error, just as in Gonzalez.

There's no doubt that these two rulings give defendants added constitutional protection. But how much impact will these rulings have for the majority of criminal defendants whose employer isn't contractually obligated to pay for their defense or who lack the money to hire the lawyer of their choice? Let me know what you think -- and if it matters anyway.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 27, 2006 at 07:20 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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