United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez

PETITIONER:United States
RESPONDENT:Cuauhtemoc Gonzalez-Lopez
LOCATION:Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

DOCKET NO.: 05-352
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 548 US 140 (2006)
GRANTED: Jan 06, 2006
ARGUED: Apr 18, 2006
DECIDED: Jun 26, 2006

Jeffrey L. Fisher – argued the cause for Respondent
Michael R. Dreeben – argued the cause for Petitioner

Facts of the case

Cuauhtemoc Gonzalez-Lopez hired Joseph Low, an attorney, to represent him in a federal criminal trial. The district court judge refused to allow Low to represent Gonzalez-Lopez, however, because the judge ruled that Low had violated a court rule in a previous case. Gonzalez-Lopez was subsequently convicted. On appeal, he argued that his Sixth Amendment right to paid counsel of his own choosing had been violated and that the conviction should therefore be overturned. The Eighth Circuit agreed, holding that the trial judge had misinterpreted the court rule and that Low’s conduct had been acceptable under a proper understanding of the rule. The decision to not allow him to represent Gonzalez-Lopez was therefore wrong, and resulted in a violation of Gonzalez- Lopez’s Sixth Amendment rights significant enough to warrant overturning the conviction.


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?

Media for United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 18, 2006 in United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 26, 2006 in United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Scalia has the opinion in 05-352, United States versus Gonzalez-Lopez.

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the 8h Circuit.

The respondent, Gonzalez-Lopez, was charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana in the eastern district of Missouri.

The District Court repeatedly rejected motions of the out-of-state attorney that Gonzalez-Lopez had hired to be allowed to represent him.

A different attorney represented Gonzalez-Lopez at trial, and he was convicted.

He appealed, the 8h Circuit concluded that the District Court’s error in excluding Gonzalez-Lopez’s chosen counsel was a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to have the counsel of choice and that this violation was not subject to harmless-error review; it therefore vacated the conviction.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we affirm the judgment of the 8th Circuit.

The Sixth Amendment provides that, “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to have the assistance of counsel for his defense”.

This gives a defendant who can afford counsel the right to choose who will represent him.

The Government concedes that Gonzalez-Lopez’s chosen counsel was improperly excluded, but it contends that any violation of the right to counsel of choice requires a showing of prejudice, that is, a showing that it affected the outcome of the trial.

The right has been accorded, the Government argues, not for its own sake, but for the affect it has on the fairness of the trial, so that if the trial has not been unfair, or at least if the defendant cannot show that it would have come out differently, no harm has been done.

It is true enough that the purpose of the rights set forth in the Sixth Amendment is to ensure a fair trial; but it does not follow that the rights can be disregarded so long as the trial is on the whole fair.

The Government’s line of reasoning abstracts from the right to its purpose and then eliminates the right.

The Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice commands not that a trial be fair, but that a particular guarantee of fairness be provided, to wit, that the accused be defended by the counsel he believes to be best.

The cases the Government relies on involve a different right, namely, the right to the effective assistance of counsel.

Even if you have selected your own counsel, if that counsel turns out to be incompetent, the Sixth Amendment is violated.

Violation of that right, the right to effective assistance, generally does require a defendant to establish that the incompetence affected the outcome of the trial; but because we derived the right to effective representation from the purpose of assuring a fair trial, it is unsurprising that we have also derived the limits of that right from that same purpose.

Counsel has not been effective unless his mistakes have harmed the defense.

The right to select the counsel of one’s choice, by contrast, was not derived from the Sixth Amendment’s purpose of ensuring a fair trial.

It has been regarded as the root meaning of the Constitutional guarantee.

Where counsel is wrongly denied, therefore, ineffectiveness or prejudice need not be shown to establish a Sixth Amendment violation.

If a defendant is erroneously prevented from being represented by the lawyer he wants, the Constitutional violation is complete, regardless of the quality of the lawyer that filled in for the counsel the defendant actually wanted.

Erroneous depravation of the right to counsel of choice has consequences that are necessarily unquantifiable and indeterminate.

Who knows what differences in strategy or even differences in presentation the counsel of choice might have brought to the case?

He might have conducted more intensive investigation or had a different theory of defense; he might have exercised peremptory challenges against different jurors; he might have conducted cross-examination-more effectively; he might have had a more charming way with the jury; he might have been more trusted by the prosecutor, enabling him to negotiate a more favorable plea bargain; or he might have counseled plea bargaining where the replacement counsel did not.

The denial of counsel of choice just thus defies analysis by harmless-error standards, because it affects the whole framework within which the trial proceeds.

The Government’s analogy to ineffectiveness cases is, again, unpersuasive.

In those cases, we can normally assess how incompetent counsels’ identified mistakes affected the outcome of a trial.

Nothing we have said today casts any doubt or places any qualification upon our previous holdings that limit the right of counsel of choice and recognize the authority of trial courts to establish criteria for admitting lawyers to argue before them.

However broad a court’s discretion may be, the Government has conceded that the District Court here erred when it denied respondent his choice of counsel.

Antonin Scalia:

Accepting that premise, we hold that the error violated respondent’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice and that this violation is not subject to harmless-error analysis.

The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit is affirmed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Alito has filed a dissenting opinion, in which the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy and Thomas join.