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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez - 548 U.S. 140, 126 S. Ct. 2557 (2006)


Where the right to be assisted by counsel of one's choice is wrongly denied, it is unnecessary to conduct an ineffectiveness or prejudice inquiry to establish a Sixth Amendment violation. Deprivation of the right is complete when a defendant is erroneously prevented from being represented by the lawyer he wants, regardless of the quality of the representation he received. To argue otherwise is to confuse the right to counsel of choice--which is the right to a particular lawyer regardless of comparative effectiveness--with the right to effective counsel--which imposes a baseline requirement of competence on whatever lawyer is chosen or appointed.


Defendant Cuauhtemoc Gonzalez-Lopez hired Joseph Low to represent him on a federal drug charge. The District Court denied Low’s application for admission pro hac vice on the ground that he had violated a professional conduct rule and then, with one exception, prevented Defendant from meeting or consulting with Low throughout the trial. The jury found Defendant guilty. Reversing, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that the District Court erred in interpreting the disciplinary rule, that the district court’s refusal to admit Low therefore violated Defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to paid counsel of his choosing, and that this violation was not subject to harmless-error review. The United States sought certiorari review, argueing that there was no showing that Defendant was prejudiced by his actual representation or that the error was not harmless.


  1. Was the respondent denied of his right to counsel?
  2. Should there be a showing that respondent was prejudiced by such denial?


1) Yes. 2) No.


The U.S. Supreme Court held that, once the denial of defendant's right to chosen counsel was established, the violation of defendant's right to counsel was complete and no showing of prejudice was required. Regardless of whether defendant received a fair trial in accordance with due process, defendant's right to counsel of his choice was the root of the constitutional guarantee of assistance of counsel. Further, given the disparities in defense attorneys' approaches and strategies in representing defendants, the consequences of the denial of defendant's right to counsel of choice were not quantifiable, and harmless-error analysis in such a context would constitute pure speculation. As such, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

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