7th Circuit: Indiana judge violated man's Sixth Amendment right to counsel

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An appellate court has ruled that a senior judge in the Northern District of Indiana violated a man’s Sixth Amendment rights by not allowing him to proceed to trial with the lawyer of his choosing.

That decision came from a three-judge panel on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which included former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was sitting by designation at the Circuit level.

The decision came Friday in the case of U.S. v. Sidney O. Sellers , No. 09-2516, a drug trafficking case from U.S. Judge Rudy Lozano who became a senior judge in the Northern District of Indiana after his retirement in 2007.

As part of a sting operation in early 2008, police and Drug Enforcement Administration officers staked out Sidney Sellers’ car and later pulled him over in Lake County for traffic violations. They found a fully loaded handgun registered in Illinois as well as several bags of crack cocaine. Police charged him with possession with intent to sell crack cocaine and possession of a firearm used in drug trafficking, and he received a 180-month sentence.

Sellers’ attorney representation became the pivotal issue in this case. The Illinois attorney he hired to represent him appointed a secondary counsel who ended up being the person representing Sellers through trial in May 2008. The lead counsel, David Weiner, was expected to begin shortly, but scheduling conflicts detailed in the record prevented him from stepping in, so the secondary attorney, Michael Oppenheimer from Illinois, remained on the case. He missed various pre-trial motion deadlines and ultimately filed a motion for a continuance three days before the trial was to begin because that date conflicted with other cases the other attorney was handling.

Senior Judge Lozano denied the motion and a request to suppress the evidence, explaining that the trial had been set for nearly two months and that Weiner, who was supposed to be lead counsel, hadn’t even filed an appearance at that time. The judge postponed the trial for a week, but that didn’t help Weiner who was still going to be handling another murder trial.

 Oppenheimer renewed his requests for a continuance on grounds he wasn’t prepared as lead counsel, and Sellers indicated he wanted to dismiss Oppenheimer as counsel because he’d wanted Weiner all along, but Senior Judge Lozano declined to postpone the trial. Oppenheimer and a new attorney represented Sellers at trial, again reiterating the need to postpone. Ultimately, Sellers was convicted and sentenced.

On appeal, Judge Michael Kanne sat with authoring Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner and former Justice O’Connor in deciding that the District judge’s refusal to grant Sellers a continuance deprived him of his Sixth Amendment right to choice of counsel and he deserved a new trial.

Analyzing the District judge’s reasons for denying the continuance, the appellate panel noted that the pre-trial motions had been late and within a few days before trial, that Sellers’ preferred counsel had not yet filed an appearance, and that the court itself had a practice of requiring any new counsel to “take the case as they find it.”

In a footnote, the panel pointed out that the court’s reliance on missed deadlines as a reason against new counsel or a continuance would, in effect, create a built-in appeal issue for ineffective assistance of counsel. “Under this reasoning, a defendant whose lawyer fails to comply with the court’s deadlines will be saddled with his ineffective counsel precisely because the lawyer is ineffective.”

The panel also pointed to Judge Lozano’s statements that he’d already accommodated the defendant by moving the trial back one week, that the government had timely turned over discovery, that the case wasn’t complex, that the judge had cancelled his attendance at the 7th Circuit judicial conference in Chicago, that the delay would affect other cases in need of trial dates, and that Judge Lozano was using this case to respond to the propensity of other Illinois counsel to request last-minute continuances.

All of these factors show that Judge Lozano’s decision-making on the continuance request was arbitrary and unreasonable,” the panel found.

“The record provides no evidence that the court balanced any of these circumstances against the needs of fairness and the demands of the calendar,” Judge Rovner wrote, citing the landmark Sixth Amendment precedent of U.S. v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 548 U.S. 140, 144 (2006). “It seems instead that the court stood on unyielding principle – the principle that new counsel must ‘take the case as he finds it;’ the principle that continuances will not be granted for those who request them at the eleventh-hour and miss other deadlines; and the principle that delay of one case will unfairly backlog other cases.”

The 7th Circuit vacated the judgment and sentence and remanded for a new trial and pre-trial proceedings.


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  1. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues