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In the context of the speedy-trial right under the Sixth Amendment, because an attorney is a defendant's agent when acting, or failing to act, in furtherance of the litigation, delay caused by the defendant's counsel is charged against the defendant. The same principle applies whether counsel is privately retained or publicly assigned, for once a lawyer has undertaken the representation of an accused, the duties and obligations are the same whether the lawyer is privately retained, appointed, or serving in a legal aid or defender program. Except for the source of payment, the relationship between a defendant and the public defender representing him is identical to that existing between any other lawyer and client. Unlike a prosecutor or the court, assigned counsel ordinarily is not considered a state actor.
Respondent was arrested on felony domestic assault and habitual offender charges. Nearly three years later, he was tried by jury, found guilty as charged, and sentenced to 12 to 20 years in prison. During the time between his arrest and his trial, at least six different attorneys were appointed to represent him. Respondent "fired" his first attorney, who served from July 2001 to February 2002. His third lawyer, who served from March 2002 until June 2002, was allowed to withdraw when he reported that respondent had threatened his life. His fourth lawyer served from June 2002 until November 2002, when the trial court released him from the case. His fifth lawyer, assigned two months later, withdrew in April 2003. Four months thereafter, his sixth lawyer was assigned, and she took the case to trial in June 2004. The trial court denied respondent’s motion to dismiss for want of a speedy trial. The Vermont Supreme Court, however, reversed, holding that respondent’s conviction must be vacated, and the charges against him dismissed, because the State did not accord him the speedy trial required by the Sixth Amendment. In assessing the reasons for that delay, the court separately considered the period of each counsel's representation.
Under the circumstances, was the respondent denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial?
The Court held that the Vermont Supreme Court erred in ranking assigned counsel essentially as state actors in the criminal justice system. Assigned counsel, just as retained counsel, act on behalf of their clients, and delays sought by counsel were ordinarily attributable to the defendants they represent. Most of the delay that the state supreme court attributed to the State must have been attributed to respondent as delays caused by his counsel. There was no justification for treating defendants' speedy-trial claims differently based on whether their counsel was privately retained or publicly assigned. The state supreme court further erred by treating the period of each counsel's representation discretely. Absent respondent's deliberate efforts to force the withdrawal of his prior counsel, no speedy-trial issue would have arisen. Delays caused by defense counsel were properly attributed to respondent. The court concluded that the respondent was not denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial.