Most people who are accused of a crime in federal court are unable to pay for a lawyer and have one appointed for them.
Which makes sense – a decent lawyer for a federal criminal case is expensive, the need to find a lawyer is urgent, and most people don’t have substantial liquid assets to hire one quickly.
Most people, then, are represented by either a federal public defender or an appointed attorney.
The advantage is that they don’t have to pay. The disadvantage is that they don’t get to choose the lawyer they hire. Maybe the lawyer they get is someone they don’t get along with. Maybe the client thinks an appointed lawyer won’t work as hard. Maybe, for some lawyers, there’s just a different dynamic when the client is paying for the lawyer’s services.
In any event, sometimes, when a client has an appointed lawyer, things go poorly with the relationship with that lawyer.
The Second Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Barton is an interesting example of what can happen when that relationship breaks bad.
John Barton was accused of doing some illegal things involving meth and a gun. He had an initial appearance – a first hearing in a case shortly after a person is arrested.
At the initial appearance, the judge asked Mr. Barton if he’d like an appointed lawyer or to hire his own lawyer. An assistant federal public defender, Elizabeth Switzer, was with him at the hearing. Normally, if a person wants an appointed lawyer, the person has to complete a financial affidavit so the judge can see if the person really can’t afford a lawyer.
Mr. Barton did not fill out a financial affidavit. He told the judge that he wanted to hire a lawyer. The judge gave Mr. Barton several days to find a lawyer.
Hiring a lawyer proved challenging for Mr. Barton. He came back to court three more times, each time with Ms. Switzer, and each time he was unable to hire a lawyer. The court continued to give him time to hire someone.
Finally, Mr. Barton decided to take matters into his own hands. He filed a motion without a lawyer seeking to dismiss the charges against him. As the Second Circuit described the motion:
He argued, among other things, that he was not properly named in the complaint, which was made out against “JOHN BARTON” and not “John Anthony Barton”; that he was legally allowed to possess both marijuana and methamphetamine to treat narcolepsy caused by a head injury he suffered in connection with a car accident; and that New York State is a sovereign territory into which the laws of the United States do not extend.
These are innovative legal theories, to be sure.
Two more hearings were held on whether Mr. Barton would hire a lawyer. Each time, Ms. Switzer appeared with him.
Finally, the judge, concerned about Mr. Barton’s head injury and how sometimes he didn’t make complete sense when talking during the hearings, decided that Mr. Barton should be evaluated to see if he is competent to stand trial.
The judge asked Ms. Switzer – who had not been appointed – to “remain in the case not as appointed counsel, but to assist Mr. Barton” until the possibly not competent man hired a lawyer. Because federal public defenders, apparently, are really best viewed as social workers.
Ms. Switzer left the federal public defender’s office for greener pastures. At Mr. Barton’s next hearing, Robert Smith, in the federal defender’s office, showed up instead.
Mr. Barton refused to answer any questions from the court about whether he would hire a lawyer. He did mention the issues raised in his motion to dismiss the charges. When the judge said she would give him two more weeks to find a lawyer then appoint Mr. Smith, Mr. Barton’s response was “I object.”
A few weeks later, at another hearing, Mr. Barton again mainly objected and talked about his motion to dismiss. The court appointed Mr. Smith, since Mr. Barton hadn’t found any other lawyer. The next day, the court issued an order finding Mr. Barton competent.
At an arraignment a few weeks later, Mr. Smith entered a plea of not guilty for Mr. Barton. Mr. Barton objected.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Smith soon after that moved to withdraw as counsel for Mr. Barton. Apparently Mr. Barton refused to see Mr. Smith – Mr. Smith thought this was, perhaps, not the best attorney client relationship.
More hearings were held. Mr. Barton did not hire an attorney. He did not complete a financial affidavit. He did, however, press forward about the issues in his motion to dismiss.
Finally, the motion to withdraw was denied. The district court reasoned that Mr. Barton never said he wanted to represent himself, and that “representation by counsel . . . should be the standard, not the exception.”
Mr. Smith took an interlocutory appeal, saying that to be forced to represent a client who wouldn’t talk to him is inconsistent with his obligations as a lawyer.
The Second Circuit let Mr. Smith out of the case. Since there was no financial affidavit – and Mr. Barton said he was able to hire a lawyer – the district court didn’t have the authority to appoint him in the first place. An appointment without a statutory basis is not really much of an appointment at all.
As the Second Circuit summed it up,
We can think of no justification for requiring these unwilling individuals to continue their unauthorized relationship. Accordingly, the district court abused its discretion when it denied Smith’s motion to withdraw.
Going forward, here’s where the Second Circuit sees things:
Of course, Barton is free to change his mind. Should he succeed in hiring an attorney following remand, that attorney may file an appearance. Alternatively, if Barton asks for appointed counsel, and if he qualifies financially, the district court must appoint counsel. What the district court may not do, however, is foist an unwilling attorney upon an unwilling defendant, who has actively refused the appointment of counsel and declined to demonstrate his financial eligibility under the CJA.
The court, unfortunately, did not rule on whether being forced to represent a client who refuses to talk to you violates your responsibilities as a lawyer.