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Man’s Sixth Amendment right not violated

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The failure of a judge to inquire into a defendant’s written complaint about his public defender didn’t violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel, the Indiana Supreme Court held Wednesday. However, the justices explained if a trial judge finds him or herself in a situation similar to the one presented, that judge should at least receive assurances from the public defender’s office that the complaint has been adequately addressed.

Randy Johnson had written to Monroe Circuit Judge Teresa Harper complaining that his public defender, Patrick Schrems, was ignoring his case. Johnson faced a child molesting charge, of which he was later convicted. Judge Harper forwarded the complaint to the county public defender’s office and told Johnson her authority was limited and it was up to the public defender’s office to assign public defenders. Judge Harper and Johnson took no further action on the matter before trial and Johnson and his attorney didn’t raise any objections to the representation at trial or the sentencing hearing.

On appeal, Johnson argued his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated by the trial judge when she didn’t conduct an adequate inquiry into his letter. He brought up other issues on appeal, but the Supreme Court only addressed this one in its decision. The justices also disagreed with the Court of Appeals’ decision to grant the state’s motion to strike portions of Johnson’s appellate brief that referenced Schrems’ previous discipline. The justices held their decisions imposing discipline against Schrems were before the trial court and the Court of Appeals to the same extent as their decisions in other litigated matters.

Turning to Johnson’s Sixth Amendment claim, the justices unanimously held his constitutional right hadn’t been violated. He claimed a conflict of interest existed between him and Schrems because the attorney didn’t interview certain witnesses. He claimed his conviction should be reversed under Holloway v. Arkansas, 435 U.S. 475 (1978), because the judge didn’t conduct an adequate inquiry when it responded that it could do nothing but send the complaint to the public defender’s office.

The high court rejected his argument in Randy Edward Johnson v. State of Indiana, No. 53S01-1106-CR-335, noting Johnson failed to allege even a potential conflict of interest or that his attorney’s loyalties were divided between Johnson and another client.

The justices also noted that in the future, under similar circumstances, a judge should do more than just pass the complaint along.

“Although indigent defense counsel must have professional independence, judges cannot take a complete ‘hands-off’ approach and totally rely on a bureaucratic agency,” wrote Justice Frank Sullivan, noting the U.S. would develop problems similar to those in England, in which there was an over-bureaucratizing of public legal services.

“To be sure, trial court judges often receive letters from disgruntled defendants complaining about their appointed lawyers, and many of these complaints – we are willing to assume most – will be unfounded. But in instances like this, where appointed counsel has a track record of the professional misconduct complained of, the judge should at minimum require assurance from the public defender’s office that the issue will be resolved. This would neither inhibit the independence of public defenders nor impose an onerous burden on our trial judges,” he wrote.
 

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  1. Why in the world would someone need a person to correct a transcript when a realtime court reporter could provide them with a transcript (rough draft) immediately?

  2. If the end result is to simply record the spoke word, then perhaps some day digital recording may eventually be the status quo. However, it is a shallow view to believe the professional court reporter's function is to simply report the spoken word and nothing else. There are many aspects to being a professional court reporter, and many aspects involved in producing a professional and accurate transcript. A properly trained professional steno court reporter has achieved a skill set in a field where the average dropout rate in court reporting schools across the nation is 80% due to the difficulty of mastering the necessary skills. To name just a few "extras" that a court reporter with proper training brings into a courtroom or a deposition suite; an understanding of legal procedure, technology specific to the legal profession, and an understanding of what is being said by the attorneys and litigants (which makes a huge difference in the quality of the transcript). As to contracting, or anti-contracting the argument is simple. The court reporter as governed by our ethical standards is to be the independent, unbiased individual in a deposition or courtroom setting. When one has entered into a contract with any party, insurance carrier, etc., then that reporter is no longer unbiased. I have been a court reporter for over 30 years and I echo Mr. Richardson's remarks that I too am here to serve.

  3. A competitive bid process is ethical and appropriate especially when dealing with government agencies and large corporations, but an ethical line is crossed when court reporters in Pittsburgh start charging exorbitant fees on opposing counsel. This fee shifting isn't just financially biased, it undermines the entire justice system, giving advantages to those that can afford litigation the most. It makes no sense.

  4. "a ttention to detail is an asset for all lawyers." Well played, Indiana Lawyer. Well played.

  5. I have a appeals hearing for the renewal of my LPN licenses and I need an attorney, the ones I have spoke to so far want the money up front and I cant afford that. I was wondering if you could help me find one that takes payments or even a pro bono one. I live in Indiana just north of Indianapolis.

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