Does A Lawyer’s Possible Conflict Of Interest In Representing Co-Defendants Violate Your Right To The Effective Assistance Of Counsel?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Glasser v. United States, 315 U.S. 60 (1942)
This case addresses the following issues:
- Does a conflict of interest based upon representing co-defendants violate the Sixth Amendment’s right to assistance of counsel?
- Does selecting only females that were members of a private organization violate the Sixth Amendment’s right to an impartial jury?
This case asked the Court to determine two questions involving the Sixth Amendment. Id. at 70, 86. First, if a conflict of interest caused by a single attorney representing two co-defendants sufficiently impaired a criminal defendant’s right to assistance of counsel. Id. at 70. The Court found that a conflict-impaired representation unless it was affirmatively waived by each co-defendant. Id. at 70-71. Second, if limiting female jurors to those who were members of a private organization violates the right to an impartial jury. Id. at 87. On this issue, the Court indicated such a practice, if proven to have occurred, would certainly violate the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee; however, the lone affidavit produced here was held insufficient to prove these allegations. Id.
In this case, the defendant was a former United States attorney that was convicted—along with two co-conspirators—of conspiring to defraud the government. Id. at 63. Essentially, the defendants were alleged to have taken bribes from individuals facing potential federal charges in lieu of more favorable charges. Id. at 64. From the time of the indictment, one co-defendant was represented by the firm of Harrington & McDonnell. Id. at 68. However, on the eve of trial this co-defendant fired the firm and Glasser’s attorney was asked to represent both Glasser and the co-defendant. Id. This request soon became an order of the Court, to which Glasser made no objection nor any agreement. Id. The jury for the trial was composed of six men and six women, but all the women in the jury pool were pulled from a list comprised of only members of the Illinois League of Woman Voters, a group which the prosecution had held lectures for prior to trial. Id. at 84.
Concerning the right to un-conflicted counsel, the Court found that Sixth Amendment requires the legal “assistance be untrammeled and unimpaired by…one lawyer simultaneously represent[ing] conflicting interests.” Id. at 70. The Court noted that for a fundamental right, such as the right to assistance of counsel, to be waived, that waiver must be affirmative. Id. The fact that Glasser never affirmatively agreed showed absence of any waiver; the fact that Glasser himself was an attorney, presumably knowledgeable of such rights, did not dictate a contrary result. Id. The Court also noted that “calculations as to the amount of prejudice arising from” the denial of assistance of counsel are unnecessary. Id. at 76. Instead, Glasser was owed “the benefit of the undivided assistance of his counsel.” Id. This lead to a new trial being ordered for Glasser, but not for the co-defendant that had not challenged his conviction based upon the conflicted counsel nor for the co-defendant represented by an entirely different lawyer. Id. at 77.
The Court then moved on to the issue of the limited selection of female jurors. Id. at 83-84. The Court found that though the right to jury trial originated at a time where limitations were placed on jurors (such as being white, male, and even owning property under English common law), such limitations “do no prevail in this country.” Id. at 85. Instead, American juries should “be a body truly representative of the community.” Id. Though there is some discretion in who may be called to serve as potential jurors, these selection processes must always “comport with the concept of the jury as a cross-section of the community.” Id. at 86. Thus, selection of female jurors from this private organization only was “openly partisan” and impermissible…if it had happened. Id. However, in this case, Glasser and his co-defendants won the battle but lost the war: they were right that such practices violated the Sixth Amendment, but they failed to provide sufficient facts to show these allegations were true. Id. at 87. Instead, Glasser had only offered an affidavit which “offered to prove the allegations contained therein, but the record is barren of any actual tender of proof.” Id. For Glasser, this ruling mattered little as he was entitled to a new trial based on his conflicted counsel; for the two other co-defendants, the error was fatal to their appeal. Id.
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