United States v. Cronic

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Harrison P. Cronic
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma

DOCKET NO.: 82-660
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 466 US 648 (1984)
ARGUED: Jan 10, 1984
DECIDED: May 14, 1984

Edwin S. Kneedler - on behalf of the Petitioner
Steven B. Duke - on behalf of Respondent

Facts of the case

During a four-month period in 1975, Harrison P. Cronic, along with Carolyn Cummings and Wylie C. Merritt, participated in a mail fraud that involved transferring more than $9,400,000 in checks between a bank in Tampa, FL, and one in Norman, OK. The three were indicted on mail fraud charges. Shortly before trial, Cronic’s counsel withdrew and the court appointed a lawyer for him. The court appointed a lawyer who specialized in real estate law and only had 25 days to prepare for the trial, compared to the government’s almost five years. Cummings and Merritt agreed to testify for the government. The jury found Cronic guilty on and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The Court of Appeals concluded that Cronic’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel had been violated and reversed the conviction.


Must there be proof of specific errors on the part of counsel in order to show a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel?

Media for United States v. Cronic

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 10, 1984 in United States v. Cronic

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments first this morning in United States against Cronic.

Mr. Kneedler, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Edwin S. Kneedler:

Thank you.

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case and the companion case of Strickland versus Washington concern the circumstances under which an otherwise valid judgment of conviction may be set aside on the basis of asserted defects in district court by defense counsel.

This issue is one of substantial importance to the administration of justice in the federal and state courts.

This is so because of the frequency with which such claims are raised and because of the often extended proceedings that some courts have ordered to dispose of those claims.

All too often, in our view, the courts engaged in a somewhat detached inquiry into the litigating judgments and performance of counsel in the abstract, rather than focusing on what we submit should be the central concern, that is, whether any errors by counsel in turn prejudiced the accused by causing a fundamental defect in the proceedings.

In order to obtain relief on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel; it is our position that the accused must show errors that fall below the minimum level of competence of counsel; and second, that any such errors in turn had a probable effect on the outcome of the case or otherwise undermine the fundamental fairness of the proceedings.

In this case, the Court of Appeals did not make any such findings in reversing the Respondent's conviction on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel.

In fact, it did not--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Kneedler, I'm troubled in this case by the fact that there are two different types of ineffective assistance of counsel claims: one where the state itself impairs the effective assistance of counsel, either by not appointing counsel at all or by taking some action that would impair the right; a second time is, assuming there's no interference by the court or the state as such with counsel, counsel simply fails to meet whatever standard it is that the court might adopt.

Now, which type of claim was litigated here?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

--Well, the principal basis of the claim and the one that the Court of Appeals decided was of the first type that you mentioned.

The Court of Appeals held that, in effect, that it must be conclusively presumed that Respondent's attorney Colston did not have... it was impossible for him to prepare for trial within the 25 days allowed.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

So that it was an impairment by the state itself, in effect, of--

Edwin S. Kneedler:

That's correct.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--the right to counsel.

Now, is that the presentation that was made by the Defendant in this case, the Respondent?

Or did the Respondent argue some other kind?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

That was the principal claim.

There were passing allegations of inadequacies in the actual performance of counsel as well.

There were some general assertions that counsel never objected to any evidence, without identifying particular objections.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

In your view, did the Court of Appeals resolve only the first type of claim?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

The Court of Appeals plainly resolved only the first, because the Court noted the Government's objection that in fact Respondent had not identified any specific failings by counsel.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Is the other issue here?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

I believe it's not here in its entirety, largely because most of the specific failings of trial counsel that Respondent points to were never identified in the Court of Appeals, even though there was a claim that counsel in fact had performed inadequately.

The specificity with which Respondent now claims was just not reflected in the record.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, if we dealt only with the part type, do we have to remand as to the second type?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

No, as to the second type it's our position that the appropriate procedure would be for Respondent to raise any claims about specific defects in counsel's performance in a motion under 2255, because this was--