United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez

Facts of the Case

Defendant Cuauhtemoc Gonzalez-Lopez hired Joseph Low to represent him on a federal drug charge. The District Court denied Low’s application for admission


If a trial court judge wrongly denies a defendant his Sixth Amendment right to an attorney of his own choosing, is the defendant automatically entitled to have his conviction overturned?


Yes. In a 5-to-4 decision authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court held that a denial of the Sixth Amendment right to paid counsel of one’s own choosing is structural error. Unlike some other kinds of errors in which a defendant must also prove that the result would likely have been different had his rights not been violated, structural errors must result in automatic reversal of the conviction. [T]he erroneous denial of counsel bears directly on the ‘framework within which the trial proceeds,’ Justice Scalia wrote. It is impossible to know what different choices the rejected counsel would have made, and then to quantify the impact of those different choices on the outcome of the proceedings. … Harmless error analysis in such a context would be a speculative inquiry into what might have occurred in an alternate universe.

Case Information

  • Citation: 548 US 140 (2006)
  • Granted: Jan 6, 2006
  • Argued: Apr 18, 2006
  • Decided Jun 26, 2006