SCOTUS Indigent criminal defense case

The Supreme Court of the United States of America ruled today in Rothgery v. Gillespie County (07-440).  At issue was whether the right to appointed counsel attaches at arraignment or indictment.  Texas operated on an indictment model.  Rothgery believes that, if he had had counsel, counsel could have intervened with the DA before the case was presented to the grand jury, and he never would have been indicted. 

SCOTUS held that (from the syllabus): “A criminal defendant’s initial appearance before a magistrate judge, where he learns the charge against him and his liberty is subject to restriction, marks the initiation of adversary judicial proceedings that trigger attachment of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.”

Update: County commissioners don’t need to be scrambling to figure out how they’re going to pay for an expanded indigent defense program, at least not yet.  Justice Souter, writing for the majority, says that:

Our holding is narrow. We do not decide whether the 6 month delay in appointment of counsel resulted in prejudice to Rothgery’s Sixth Amendment rights, and have no occasion to consider what standards should apply in deciding this.

And then there’s the concurring opinion of Justice Alito, which is joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Scalia:

Texas counties need only appoint counsel as far in advance of trial, and as far in advance of any pretrial “critical stage,” as necessary to guarantee effective assistance at trial. … The Court expresses no opinion on whether Gillespie County satisfied that obligation in this case. Petitioner has asked us to decide only the limited question whether his magistration marked the beginning of his “criminalprosecutio[n]” within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment.  Because I agree with the Court’s resolution of that limited question, I join its opinion in full.

So it’s back downstairs to the Fifth Circuit to figure out what it means in the real world when the Supremes says that the right to counsel “attaches” at the first appearance before a judicial officer.

(Thanks to Grits for Breakfast, and the SCOTUSBlog for their early posts on this decision.)

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