In U.S. v. Gonzalez-Lopez, No. 05-352 (June 26, 2006), the Supreme Court held that a trial court’s erroneous deprivation of a criminal defendant’s choice of counsel is structural error, and automatically entitles him to reversal of his conviction.
For his criminal trial in federal district court, the trial court had erroneously relied on a Rule of Professional Conduct to prohibit the defendant’s counsel of choice from representing him at trial. The Court held that this violated the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, which guarantees that the accused be defended by the counsel he believes to be best. The Court held that the Strickland v. Washington ineffective assistance of counsel analysis was inapposite to the choice of counsel issue, because it addressed the fairness of a trial whereas the selection of counsel is a "root meaning" of the Sixth Amendment.
The Court held that a violation of the right to counsel of one’s choice constituted structural error. The issue was not susceptible to harmless error review, because the error pervaded the trial, and gave rise to unquantifiable inquiries, for example, whether a different lawyer would have pursued a different strategy.
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