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Local counsel rule found unconstitutional

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Indiana Lawyer Focus

Any trial lawyer knows that litigation can be complicated and multiple issues may surface that can lead to a different result on appeal.

But the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the Northern District of Indiana was essentially creating a built-in appeal issue on ineffective assistance of counsel, and it called out the senior judge for violating a man’s Sixth Amendment right to choose his own lawyer.

lozano-rudy-judge-mug.jpg Lozano

A three-judge appellate panel determined May 19 that U.S. Judge Rudy Lozano 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.

More significantly for trial lawyers, the appellate panel voiced its disapproval of a local court rule that instructs new counsel to “take a case as they find it.” The ruling sends a message to judges concerning tactics they can take to warn lawyers about general continuances or calendar issues.

“We reiterate that a court certainly may consider how last-minute continuances and missed deadlines tread upon the rights of parties and the demands of a court’s calendar,” 7th Circuit Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner wrote in U.S. v. Sidney O. Sellers, No. 09-2516. “The key, however, is that these legitimate considerations must be balanced against the reasons in support of the motion for a continuance to accommodate new counsel.”

The appellate panel also included 7th Circuit Judge Michael Kanne and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, who sat by designation. The drug trafficking case came from Judge Lozano, who took senior status after his retirement in 2007.

As part of a sting operation in early 2008, authorities staked out Sellers’ car and later pulled him over in Lake County for traffic violations, finding a loaded handgun registered in Illinois and 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 as lead counsel appointed a secondary counsel who ended up representing Sellers through trial in May 2008.

The lead counsel, David Weiner, was expected to take over, but scheduling conflicts prevented him from stepping in. The secondary attorney, Michael Oppenheimer of Illinois, remained on the case. The lawyers missed various pre-trial motion deadlines and asked for a continuance three days before the trial was scheduled to begin because that date conflicted with other cases Weiner was handling.

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 hadn’t even filed an appearance during that time. The judge postponed the trial for a week, but Weiner still had conflicts due to another murder trial.

Oppenheimer renewed his continuance requests on grounds he wasn’t prepared as lead counsel. Sellers indicated he wanted to dismiss Oppenheimer as counsel because he had wanted Weiner all along, but 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, the panel decided the District judge’s refusal to grant Sellers a continuance deprived him of his Sixth Amendment right to choice of counsel, and that Sellers deserved a new trial. They took issue with Judge Lozano’s statements about pre-trial motions being late and within only 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 he 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 he was using this case to respond to the propensity of other Illinois counsel to request last-minute continuances – as factors that show the judge’s decision-making on the continuance request was “arbitrary and unreasonable.”

“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 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 appeals court also noted that Judge Lozano’s opinion and oral ruling are “riddled with indications of generalized annoyance with defendant’s counsel that smack of an arbitrary application of the rule as retribution for both counsel’s own errors, and the errors of others.”

“There can be no more arbitrary and unreasonable application of a rule as punishment for the missteps of another lawyer in an unrelated case,” Judge Rovner wrote.

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

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  1. No second amendment, pro life, pro traditional marriage, reagan or trump tshirts will be sold either. And you cannot draw Mohammed even in your own notebook. And you must wear a helmet at all times while at the fair. And no lawyer jokes can be told except in the designated protest area. And next year no crucifixes, since they are uber offensive to all but Catholics. Have a nice bland day here in the Lego movie. Remember ... Everything is awesome comrades.

  2. Thank you for this post . I just bought a LG External DVD It came with Cyber pwr 2 go . It would not play on Lenovo Idea pad w/8.1 . Your recommended free VLC worked great .

  3. All these sites putting up all the crap they do making Brent Look like A Monster like he's not a good person . First off th fight actually started not because of Brent but because of one of his friends then when the fight popped off his friend ran like a coward which left Brent to fend for himself .It IS NOT a crime to defend yourself 3 of them and 1 of him . just so happened he was a better fighter. I'm Brent s wife so I know him personally and up close . He's a very caring kind loving man . He's not abusive in any way . He is a loving father and really shouldn't be where he is not for self defense . Now because of one of his stupid friends trying to show off and turning out to be nothing but a coward and leaving Brent to be jumped by 3 men not only is Brent suffering but Me his wife , his kids abd step kidshis mom and brother his family is left to live without him abd suffering in more ways then one . that man was and still is my smile ....he's the one real thing I've ever had in my life .....f@#@ You Lafayette court system . Learn to do your jobs right he maybe should have gotten that year for misdemeanor battery but that s it . not one person can stand to me and tell me if u we're in a fight facing 3 men and u just by yourself u wouldn't fight back that you wouldn't do everything u could to walk away to ur family ur kids That's what Brent is guilty of trying to defend himself against 3 men he wanted to go home tohisfamily worse then they did he just happened to be a better fighter and he got the best of th others . what would you do ? Stand there lay there and be stomped and beaten or would u give it everything u got and fight back ? I'd of done the same only I'm so smallid of probably shot or stabbed or picked up something to use as a weapon . if it was me or them I'd do everything I could to make sure I was going to live that I would make it hone to see my kids and husband . I Love You Brent Anthony Forever & Always .....Soul 1 baby

  4. Good points, although this man did have a dog in the legal fight as that it was his mother on trial ... and he a dependent. As for parking spaces, handicap spots for pregnant women sure makes sense to me ... er, I mean pregnant men or women. (Please, I meant to include pregnant men the first time, not Room 101 again, please not Room 101 again. I love BB)

  5. I have no doubt that the ADA and related laws provide that many disabilities must be addressed. The question, however, is "by whom?" Many people get dealt bad cards by life. Some are deaf. Some are blind. Some are crippled. Why is it the business of the state to "collectivize" these problems and to force those who are NOT so afflicted to pay for those who are? The fact that this litigant was a mere spectator and not a party is chilling. What happens when somebody who speaks only East Bazurkistanish wants a translator so that he can "understand" the proceedings in a case in which he has NO interest? Do I and all other taxpayers have to cough up? It would seem so. ADA should be amended to provide a simple rule: "Your handicap, YOUR problem". This would apply particularly to handicapped parking spaces, where it seems that if the "handicap" is an ingrown toenail, the government comes rushing in to assist the poor downtrodden victim. I would grant wounded vets (IED victims come to mind in particular) a pass on this.. but others? Nope.

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