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.