Lexis Nexis - Case Brief

Not a Lexis+ subscriber? Try it out for free.

Law School Case Brief

Cuyler v. Sullivan - 446 U.S. 335, 100 S. Ct. 1708 (1980)


Multiple representation does not violate U.S. Const. amend. VI, unless it gives rise to a conflict of interest. Since a possible conflict inheres in almost every instance of multiple representation, a defendant who objects to multiple representation must have the opportunity to show that potential conflicts impermissibly imperil his right to a fair trial. But unless the trial court fails to afford such an opportunity, a reviewing court cannot presume that the possibility for conflict has resulted in ineffective assistance of counsel. Such a presumption would preclude multiple representation even in cases where a common defense gives strength against a common attack. In order to establish a violation of U.S. Const. amend. VI, a defendant who raised no objection at trial must demonstrate that an actual conflict of interest adversely affected his lawyer's performance.


Two privately retained lawyers represented three criminal defendants charged with first degree murder throughout the state proceedings, which followed their indictment in Pennsylvania. All the defendants were tried separately. The first defendant to come to trial was found guilty in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas wholly on the basis of circumstantial evidence after his defense rested without presenting any evidence. At no time did defendant or his lawyers object to the multiple representation. The other two codefendants were subsequently acquitted. The first defendant eventually petitioned for collateral relief under state law, alleging, among other claims, that he had been denied the effective assistance of counsel because his defense lawyers represented conflicting interests. After hearing testimony from both lawyers, one of whom testified that concern for the other two codefendants had influenced his judgment not to present a defense, the Court of Common Pleas denied relief. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed both the first defendant's original conviction and the denial of collateral relief, holding that there was no dual representation "in the true sense of the term," and that resting the defense was a reasonable tactic that did not amount to a denial of the effective assistance of counsel.

Defendant then sought habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which accepted the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's conclusion that there had been no multiple representation. The District Court also decided that, even assuming multiple representation, the evidence adduced in the state post-conviction proceeding revealed no conflict of interest. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed, holding that the two lawyers' participation in the trial of the defendants established multiple representation as a matter of law, and further ruling that a sufficient possibility of conflict of interest had been raised to prove a violation of the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel, since a defendant was entitled to reversal of a conviction whenever some showing of a possible conflict of interest or prejudice, however remote, was made. The State sought further review by the United States Supreme Court.


Was the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel violated because of the fact of multiple representation on the part of his lawyers?




The Court vacated the decision of the appellate court, holding that state courts were not required to inquire into the sufficiency of multiple representation where no parties objected and no special circumstances were present. According to the Court, where defendant raised no objection at the trial to the sufficiency of the multiple representation, he was required to show that an actual conflict of interest adversely affected his lawyer's performance. In conclusion, the Court held that a possible conflict of interest was not enough to establish an ineffective assistance of counsel.

Access the full text case Not a Lexis+ subscriber? Try it out for free.
Be Sure You're Prepared for Class