466 U.S. 648 (1984), 82-660, United States v. Cronic

Docket Nº:No. 82-660
Citation:466 U.S. 648, 104 S.Ct. 2039, 80 L.Ed.2d 657
Party Name:United States v. Cronic
Case Date:May 14, 1984
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 648

466 U.S. 648 (1984)

104 S.Ct. 2039, 80 L.Ed.2d 657

United States

v.

Cronic

No. 82-660

United States Supreme Court

May 14, 1984

Argued January 10, 1984

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent and two associates were indicted on mail fraud charges involving a "check kiting" scheme whereby checks were transferred between a bank in Florida and a bank in Oklahoma. When respondent's retained counsel withdrew shortly before the scheduled trial date, the District Court appointed a young lawyer with a real [104 S.Ct. 2041] estate practice who had never participated in a jury trial to represent respondent, but allowed him only 25 days to prepare for trial, even though the Government had taken over four and one-half years to investigate the case and had reviewed thousands of documents during that investigation. Respondent was convicted, but the Court of Appeals reversed, because it inferred that respondent's right to the effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment had been violated. Finding it unnecessary to inquire into counsel's actual performance at trial, the court based its inference on the circumstances surrounding the representation of respondent, particularly (1) the time afforded for investigation and preparation, (2) the experience of counsel, (3) the gravity of the charge, (4) the complexity of possible defenses, and (5) the accessibility of witnesses to counsel.

Held: The Court of Appeals erred in utilizing an inferential approach in determining whether respondent's right to the effective assistance of counsel had been violated. Pp. 653-667.

(a) The right to the effective assistance of counsel is the right of the accused to require the prosecution's case to survive the crucible of meaningful adversarial testing. When a true adversarial criminal trial has been conducted, the kind of testing envisioned by the Sixth Amendment has occurred. Pp. 653-657.

(b) Here, while the Court of Appeals purported to apply a standard of reasonable competence, it did not indicate that there had been an actual breakdown of the adversarial process during a trial. Instead, it concluded that the circumstances surrounding the representation of respondent mandated an inference that counsel was unable to discharge his duties. Only when surrounding circumstances justify a presumption of ineffectiveness can a Sixth Amendment claim be sufficient without inquiry into counsel's actual performance at trial. Pp. 657-662.

(c) The five criteria identified by the Court of Appeals as the circumstances surrounding respondent's representation warranting a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel, while relevant to an evaluation of a lawyer's

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effectiveness in a particular case, neither separately nor in combination provide a basis for concluding that competent counsel was not able to provide this respondent with the guiding hand that the Constitution guarantees. Pp. 663-666.

(d) This case is not one in which the surrounding circumstances make it unlikely that the defendant could have received the effective assistance of counsel. The criteria used by the Court of Appeals do not demonstrate that counsel failed to function in any meaningful sense as the Government's adversary. Respondent can make out a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel only by pointing to specific errors made by trial counsel. Pp. 666-667.

675 F.2d 1126, reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., concurred in the judgment.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent and two associates were indicted on mail fraud charges involving the transfer of over $9,400,000 in checks between banks in Tampa, Fla., and Norman, Okla., during a 4-month period in 1975. Shortly before the scheduled trial date, respondent's retained counsel withdrew. The court appointed a young lawyer with a real estate practice to represent respondent, but allowed him only 25 days for pretrial preparation, even though it had taken the Government over four and one-half years to investigate the case and it had reviewed thousands of documents during that investigation. The two codefendants agreed to testify for the Government;

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respondent was convicted on 11 of the 13 counts in the indictment and received a 25-year sentence.

The Court of Appeals reversed the conviction because it concluded that respondent did not "have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence" that is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.1 This conclusion was not supported by a determination that respondent's trial counsel had made any specified errors, that his actual performance had prejudiced the defense, or that he failed to exercise "the skill, judgment, and diligence of a reasonably competent defense attorney"; instead, the conclusion rested on the premise that no such showing is necessary "when circumstances hamper a given lawyer's preparation of a defendant's case."2 The question presented by the Government's petition for certiorari is whether the Court of Appeals has correctly interpreted the Sixth Amendment.

I

The indictment alleged a "check kiting" scheme.3 At the direction of respondent, his codefendant Cummings opened a bank account in the name of Skyproof Manufacturing, Inc. (Skyproof), at a bank in Tampa, Fla., and codefendant Merritt opened two accounts, one in his own name and one in the name of Skyproof, at banks in Norman, Okla.4 Knowing that there were insufficient funds in either account, the defendants allegedly drew a series of checks and wire transfers on the Tampa account aggregating $4,841,073.95, all of which were deposited in Skyproof's Norman bank account during the period between June 23, 1975, and October 16, 1975;

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during approximately the same period, they drew checks on Skyproof's Norman account for deposits in Tampa aggregating $4,600,881.39. The process of clearing the checks involved the use of the mails. By "kiting" insufficient funds checks between the banks in those two cities, defendants allegedly created false or inflated balances in the accounts. After outlining the overall scheme, Count I of the indictment alleged the mailing of two checks each for less than $1,000 early in May. Each of the additional 12 counts realleged the allegations in Count I except its reference to the two specific checks, and then added an allegation identifying other checks issued and mailed at later dates.

At trial, the Government proved that Skyproof's checks were issued and deposited at the times and places, and in the amounts, described in the indictment. Having made plea bargains with defendants Cummings and Merritt, who had actually handled the issuance and delivery of the relevant written instruments, the Government proved through their testimony that respondent had conceived and directed the entire scheme, and that he had deliberately concealed his connection with Skyproof because of prior financial and tax problems.

After the District Court ruled that a prior conviction could be used to impeach his testimony, respondent decided not to testify. Counsel put on no defense. By cross-examination of Government witnesses, however, he established that Skyproof was not merely a sham, but actually was an operating company with a significant cash flow, though its revenues were not sufficient to justify as large a "float" as the record disclosed. Cross-examination also established the absence of written evidence that respondent had any control over Skyproof, [104 S.Ct. 2043] or personally participated in the withdrawals or deposits.5

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The 4-day jury trial ended on July 17, 1980, and respondent was sentenced on August 28, 1980. His counsel perfected a timely appeal, which was docketed on September 11, 1980. Two months later, respondent filed a motion to substitute a new attorney in the Court of Appeals, and also filed a motion in the District Court seeking to vacate his conviction on the ground that he had newly discovered evidence of perjury by officers of the Norman bank, and that the Government knew or should have known of that perjury. In that motion, he also challenged the competence of his trial counsel.6 The District Court refused to entertain the motion while the appeal was pending. The Court of Appeals denied the motion to substitute the attorney designated by respondent, but did appoint still another attorney to handle the appeal. Later it allowed respondent's motion to supplement the record with material critical of trial counsel's performance.

The Court of Appeals reversed the conviction because it inferred that respondent's constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel had been violated. That inference was based on its use of five criteria:

"(1) [T]he time afforded for investigation and preparation; (2) the experience of counsel; (3) the gravity of the charge; (4) the complexity of possible defenses; and (5) the accessibility of witnesses to counsel."

675 F.2d 1126, 1129 (CA10 1982) (quoting United States v. Golub, 638 F.2d 185, 189 (CA10 1980)). Under the test employed by the Court of Appeals, reversal is required even if

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the lawyer's actual performance was flawless. By utilizing this inferential approach, the Court of Appeals erred.

II

An accused's right to be represented by counsel is a fundamental component of our criminal justice system. Lawyers in criminal cases "are necessities, not luxuries."7 Their presence is essential because they are the means through which the other rights of the person on trial are secured. Without...

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