United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez
548 U.S. 140 (2006)

Annotate this Case
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Antonin Scalia)  | 
  • Dissent (Samuel A. Alito, Jr.)

548 U. S. ____ (2006)

NO. 05-352


on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

[June 26, 2006]

   Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court.

   We must decide whether a trial court’s erroneous deprivation of a criminal defendant’s choice of counsel entitles him to a reversal of his conviction.


   Respondent Cuauhtemoc Gonzalez-Lopez was charged in the Eastern District of Missouri with conspiracy to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana. His family hired attorney John Fahle to represent him. After the arraignment, respondent called a California attorney, Joseph Low, to discuss whether Low would represent him, either in addition to or instead of Fahle. Low flew from California to meet with respondent, who hired him.

   Some time later, Low and Fahle represented respondent at an evidentiary hearing before a Magistrate Judge. The Magistrate Judge accepted Low’s provisional entry of appearance and permitted Low to participate in the hearing on the condition that he immediately file a motion for admission pro hac vice. During the hearing, however, the Magistrate Judge revoked the provisional acceptance on the ground that, by passing notes to Fahle, Low had violated a court rule restricting the cross-examination of a witness to one counsel.

   The following week, respondent informed Fahle that he wanted Low to be his only attorney. Low then filed an application for admission pro hac vice. The District Court denied his application without comment. A month later, Low filed a second application, which the District Court again denied without explanation. Low’s appeal, in the form of an application for a writ of mandamus, was dismissed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

   Fahle filed a motion to withdraw as counsel and for a show-cause hearing to consider sanctions against Low. Fahle asserted that, by contacting respondent while respondent was represented by Fahle, Low violated Mo. Rule of Professional Conduct 4–4.2 (1993), which prohibits a lawyer “[i]n representing a client” from “communicat[ing] about the subject of the representation with a party … represented by another lawyer” without that lawyer’s consent. Low filed a motion to strike Fahle’s motion. The District Court granted Fahle’s motion to withdraw and granted a continuance so that respondent could find new representation. Respondent retained a local attorney, Karl Dickhaus, for the trial. The District Court then denied Low’s motion to strike and, for the first time, explained that it had denied Low’s motions for admission pro hac vice primarily because, in a separate case before it, Low had violated Rule 4–4.2 by communicating with a represented party.

   The case proceeded to trial, and Dickhaus represented respondent. Low again moved for admission and was again denied. The Court also denied Dickhaus’s request to have Low at counsel table with him and ordered Low to sit in the audience and to have no contact with Dickhaus during the proceedings. To enforce the Court’s order, a United States Marshal sat between Low and Dickhaus at trial. Respondent was unable to meet with Low throughout the trial, except for once on the last night. The jury found respondent guilty.

   After trial, the District Court granted Fahle’s motion for sanctions against Low. It read Rule 4–4.2 to forbid Low’s contact with respondent without Fahle’s permission. It also reiterated that it had denied Low’s motions for admission on the ground that Low had violated the same Rule in a separate matter.

   Respondent appealed, and the Eighth Circuit vacated the conviction. 399 F. 3d 924 (2005). The Court first held that the District Court erred in interpreting Rule 4–4.2 to prohibit Low’s conduct both in this case and in the separate matter on which the District Court based its denials of his admission motions. The District Court’s denials of these motions were therefore erroneous and violated respondent’s Sixth Amendment right to paid counsel of his choosing. See id., at 928–932. The Court then concluded that this Sixth Amendment violation was not subject to harmless-error review. See id., at 932–935. We granted certiorari. 546 U. S. ___ (2006).


   The Sixth Amendment provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” We have previously held that an element of this right is the right of a defendant who does not require appointed counsel to choose who will represent him. See Wheat v. United States, 486 U. S. 153, 159 (1988). Cf. Powell v. Alabama, 287 U. S. 45, 53 (1932) (“It is hardly necessary to say that, the right to counsel being conceded, a defendant should be afforded a fair opportunity to secure counsel of his own choice”). The Government here agrees, as it has previously, that “the Sixth Amendment guarantees the defendant the right to be represented by an otherwise qualified attorney whom that defendant can afford to hire, or who is willing to represent the defendant even though he is without funds.” Caplin & Drysdale, Chartered v. United States, 491 U. S. 617, 624–625 (1989). To be sure, the right to counsel of choice “is circumscribed in several important respects.” Wheat, supra, at 159. But the Government does not dispute the Eighth Circuit’s conclusion in this case that the District Court erroneously deprived respondent of his counsel of choice.

   The Government contends, however, that the Sixth Amendment violation is not “complete” unless the defendant can show that substitute counsel was ineffective within the meaning of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668, 691–696 (1984)—i.e., that substitute counsel’s performance was deficient and the defendant was prejudiced by it. In the alternative, the Government contends that the defendant must at least demonstrate that his counsel of choice would have pursued a different strategy that would have created a “reasonable probability that … the result of the proceedings would have been different,” id., at 694—in other words, that he was prejudiced within the meaning of Strickland by the denial of his counsel of choice even if substitute counsel’s performance was not constitutionally deficient.[Footnote 1] To support these propositions, the Government points to our prior cases, which note that the right to counsel “has been accorded … not for its own sake, but for the effect it has on the ability of the accused to receive a fair trial.” Mickens v. Taylor, 535 U. S. 162, 166 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted). A trial is not unfair and thus the Sixth Amendment is not violated, the Government reasons, unless a defendant has been prejudiced.

   Stated as broadly as this, the Government’s argument in effect reads the Sixth Amendment as a more detailed version of the Due Process Clause—and then proceeds to give no effect to the details. It is true enough that the purpose of the rights set forth in that 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. What the Government urges upon us here is what was urged upon us (successfully, at one time, see Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U. S. 56 (1980)) with regard to the Sixth Amendment’s right of confrontation—a line of reasoning that “abstracts from the right to its purposes, and then eliminates the right.” Maryland v. Craig, 497 U. S. 836, 862 (1990) (Scalia, J., dissenting). Since, it was argued, the purpose of the Confrontation Clause was to ensure the reliability of evidence, so long as the testimonial hearsay bore “indicia of reliability,” the Confrontation Clause was not violated. See Roberts, supra, at 65–66. We rejected that argument (and our prior cases that had accepted it) in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U. S. 36 (2004), saying that the Confrontation Clause “commands, not that evidence be reliable, but that reliability be assessed in a particular manner: by testing in the crucible of cross-examination.” Id., at 61.

   So also with the Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice. It 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 Constitution guarantees a fair trial through the Due Process Clauses, but it defines the basic elements of a fair trial largely through the several provisions of the Sixth Amendment, including the Counsel Clause.” Strickland, supra, at 684–685. In sum, the right at stake here is the right to counsel of choice, not the right to a fair trial; and that right was violated because the deprivation of counsel was erroneous. No additional showing of prejudice is required to make the violation “complete.”[Footnote 2]

   The cases the Government relies on involve the right to the effective assistance of counsel, the violation of which generally requires a defendant to establish prejudice. See, e.g., Strickland, supra, at 694; Mickens, supra, at 166; United States v. Cronic, 466 U. S. 648 (1984). The earliest case generally cited for the proposition that “the right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance of counsel,” McMann v. Richardson, 397 U. S. 759, 771, n. 14 (1970), was based on the Due Process Clause rather than on the Sixth Amendment, see Powell, 287 U. S., at 57 (cited in e.g., McMann, supra, at 771, n. 14). And even our recognition of the right to effective counsel within the Sixth Amendment was a consequence of our perception that representation by counsel “is critical to the ability of the adversarial system to produce just results.” Strickland, supra, at 685. Having derived the right to effective representation from the purpose of ensuring a fair trial, we have, logically enough, also derived the limits of that right from that same purpose. See Mickens, supra, at 166. The requirement that a defendant show prejudice in effective representation cases arises from the very nature of the specific element of the right to counsel at issue there—effective (not mistake-free) representation. Counsel cannot be “ineffective” unless his mistakes have harmed the defense (or, at least, unless it is reasonably likely that they have). Thus, a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to effective representation is not “complete” until the defendant is prejudiced. See Strickland, supra, at 685.

   The right to select counsel of one’s choice, by contrast, has never been derived from the Sixth Amendment’s purpose of ensuring a fair trial.[Footnote 3] It has been regarded as the root meaning of the constitutional guarantee. See Wheat, 486 U. S., at 159; Andersen v. Treat, 172 U. S. 24 (1898). See generally W. Beaney, The Right to Counsel in American Courts 18–24, 27–33 (1955). Cf. Powell, supra, at 53. Where the right to be assisted by counsel of one’s choice is wrongly denied, therefore, it is unnecessary to conduct an ineffectiveness or prejudice inquiry to establish a Sixth Amendment violation. Deprivation of the right is “complete” when the defendant is erroneously prevented from being represented by the lawyer he wants, regardless of the quality of the representation he received. To argue otherwise is to confuse the right to counsel of choice—which is the right to a particular lawyer regardless of comparative effectiveness—with the right to effective counsel—which imposes a baseline requirement of competence on whatever lawyer is chosen or appointed.


   Having concluded, in light of the Government’s concession of erroneous deprivation, that the trial court violated respondent’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice, we must consider whether this error is subject to review for harmlessness. In Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U. S. 279 (1991), we divided constitutional errors into two classes. The first we called “trial error,” because the errors “occurred during presentation of the case to the jury” and their effect may “be quantitatively assessed in the context of other evidence presented in order to determine whether [they were] harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id., at 307–308 (internal quotation marks omitted). These include “most constitutional errors.” Id., at 306. The second class of constitutional error we called “structural defects.” These “defy analysis by ‘harmless-error’ standards” because they “affec[t] the framework within which the trial proceeds,” and are not “simply an error in the trial process itself.” Id., at 309–310.[Footnote 4] See also Neder v. United States, 527 U. S. 1, 7–9 (1999). Such errors include the denial of counsel, see Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U. S. 335 (1963), the denial of the right of self-representation, see McKaskle v. Wiggins, 465 U. S. 168, 177–178, n. 8 (1984), the denial of the right to public trial, see Waller v. Georgia, 467 U. S. 39, 49, n. 9 (1984), and the denial of the right to trial by jury by the giving of a defective reasonable-doubt instruction, see Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U. S. 275 (1993).

   We have little trouble concluding that erroneous deprivation of the right to counsel of choice, “with consequences that are necessarily unquantifiable and indeterminate, unquestionably qualifies as ‘structural error.’ ” Id., at 282. Different attorneys will pursue different strategies with regard to investigation and discovery, development of the theory of defense, selection of the jury, presentation of the witnesses, and style of witness examination and jury argument. And the choice of attorney will affect whether and on what terms the defendant cooperates with the prosecution, plea bargains, or decides instead to go to trial. In light of these myriad aspects of representation, the erroneous denial of counsel bears directly on the “framework within which the trial proceeds,” Fulminante, supra, at 310—or indeed on whether it proceeds at all. 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. Many counseled decisions, including those involving plea bargains and cooperation with the government, do not even concern the conduct of the trial at all. Harmless-error analysis in such a context would be a speculative inquiry into what might have occurred in an alternate universe.

   The Government acknowledges that the deprivation of choice of counsel pervades the entire trial, but points out that counsel’s ineffectiveness may also do so and yet we do not allow reversal of a conviction for that reason without a showing of prejudice. But the requirement of showing prejudice in ineffectiveness claims stems from the very definition of the right at issue; it is not a matter of showing that the violation was harmless, but of showing that a violation of the right to effective representation occurred. A choice-of-counsel violation occurs whenever the defendant’s choice is wrongfully denied. Moreover, if and when counsel’s ineffectiveness “pervades” a trial, it does so (to the extent we can detect it) through identifiable mistakes. We can assess how those mistakes affected the outcome. To determine the effect of wrongful denial of choice of counsel, however, we would not be looking for mistakes committed by the actual counsel, but for differences in the defense that would have been made by the rejected counsel—in matters ranging from questions asked on voir dire and cross-examination to such intangibles as argument style and relationship with the prosecutors. We would have to speculate upon what matters the rejected counsel would have handled differently—or indeed, would have handled the same but with the benefit of a more jury-pleasing courtroom style or a longstanding relationship of trust with the prosecutors. And then we would have to speculate upon what effect those different choices or different intangibles might have had. The difficulties of conducting the two assessments of prejudice are not remotely comparable.[Footnote 5]


   Nothing we have said today casts any doubt or places any qualification upon our previous holdings that limit the right to counsel of choice and recognize the authority of trial courts to establish criteria for admitting lawyers to argue before them. As the dissent too discusses, post, at 3, the right to counsel of choice does not extend to defendants who require counsel to be appointed for them. See Wheat, 486 U. S., at 159; Caplin & Drysdale, 491 U. S., at 624, 626. Nor may a defendant insist on representation by a person who is not a member of the bar, or demand that a court honor his waiver of conflict-free representation. See Wheat, 486 U. S., at 159–160. We have recognized a trial court’s wide latitude in balancing the right to counsel of choice against the needs of fairness, id., at 163–164, and against the demands of its calendar, Morris v. Slappy, 461 U. S. 1, 11–12 (1983). The court has, moreover, an “independent interest in ensuring that criminal trials are conducted within the ethical standards of the profession and that legal proceedings appear fair to all who observe them.” Wheat, supra, at 160. None of these limitations on the right to choose one’s counsel is relevant here. This is not a case about a court’s power to enforce rules or adhere to practices that determine which attorneys may appear before it, or to make scheduling and other decisions that effectively exclude a defendant’s first choice of counsel. 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. 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 Court of Appeals is affirmed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Footnote 1

 The dissent proposes yet a third standard—viz., that the defendant must show “ ‘an identifiable difference in the quality of representation between the disqualified counsel and the attorney who represents the defendant at trial.’ ” Post, at 4 (opinion of Alito, J.). That proposal suffers from the same infirmities (outlined later in text) that beset the Government’s positions. In addition, however, it greatly impairs the clarity of the law. How is a lower-court judge to know what an “identifiable difference” consists of? Whereas the Government at least appeals to Strickland and the case law under it, the most the dissent can claim by way of precedential support for its rule is that it is “consistent with” cases that never discussed the issue of prejudice. Id.

Footnote 2

 The dissent resists giving effect to our cases’ recognition, and the Government’s concession, that a defendant has a right to be defended by counsel of his choosing. It argues that because the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to the “assistance of counsel,” it is not violated unless “the erroneous disqualification of a defendant’s counsel of choice … impair[s] the assistance that a defendant receives at trial.” Post, at 1–2 (opinion of Alito, J.). But if our cases (and the Government’s concession) mean anything, it is that the Sixth Amendment is violated when the erroneous disqualification of counsel “impair[s] the assistance that a defendant receives at trial [from the counsel that he chose].”

Footnote 3

 In Wheat v. United States, 486 U. S. 153 (1988), where we formulated the right to counsel of choice and discussed some of the limitations upon it, we took note of the overarching purpose of fair trial in holding that the trial court has discretion to disallow a first choice of counsel that would create serious risk of conflict of interest. Id., at 159. It is one thing to conclude that the right to counsel of choice may be limited by the need for fair trial, but quite another to say that the right does not exist unless its denial renders the trial unfair.

Footnote 4

The dissent criticizes us for our trial error/structural defect dichotomy, asserting that Fulminante never said that “trial errors are the only sorts of errors amenable to harmless-error review, or that all errors affecting the framework within which the trial proceeds are structural,” post, at 8 (opinion of Alito, J.) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Although it is hard to read that case as doing anything other than dividing constitutional error into two comprehensive categories, our ensuing analysis in fact relies neither upon such comprehensiveness nor upon trial error as the touchstone for the availability of harmless-error review. Rather, here, as we have done in the past, we rest our conclusion of structural error upon the difficulty of assessing the effect of the error. See Waller v. Georgia, 467 U. S. 39, 49, n. 9 (1984) (violation of the public-trial guarantee is not subject to harmlessness review because “the benefits of a public trial are frequently intangible, difficult to prove, or a matter of chance”); Vasquez v. Hillery, 474 U. S. 254, 263 (1986) (“[W]hen a petit jury has been selected upon improper criteria or has been exposed to prejudicial publicity, we have required reversal of the conviction because the effect of the violation cannot be ascertained”). The dissent would use “fundamental unfairness” as the sole criterion of structural error, and cites a case in which that was the determining factor, see Neder v. United States, 527 U. S. 1, 9 (1999) (quoted by the dissent, post, at 6). But this has not been the only criterion we have used. In addition to the above cases using difficulty of assessment as the test, we have also relied on the irrelevance of harmlessness, see McKaskle v. Wiggins, 465 U. S. 168, 177, n. 8 (1984) (“Since the right to self-representation is a right that when exercised usually increases the likelihood of a trial outcome unfavorable to the defendant, its denial is not amenable to ‘harmless error’ analysis”). Thus, it is the dissent that creates a single, inflexible criterion, inconsistent with the reasoning of our precedents, when it asserts that only those errors that always or necessarily render a trial fundamentally unfair and unreliable are structural, post, at 8.

Footnote 5

 In its discussion of the analysis that would be required to conduct harmless-error review, the dissent focuses on which counsel was “better.” See post, at 7–8 (opinion of Alito, J.). This focus has the effect of making the analysis look achievable, but it is fundamentally inconsistent with the principle (which the dissent purports to accept for the sake of argument) that the Sixth Amendment can be violated without a showing of harm to the quality of representation. Cf. McKaskle, supra, at 177, n. 8. By framing its inquiry in these terms and expressing indignation at the thought that a defendant may receive a new trial when his actual counsel was at least as effective as the one he wanted, the dissent betrays its misunderstanding of the nature of the right to counsel of choice and its confusion of this right with the right to effective assistance of counsel.

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