The Seventh Circuit had an interesting new decision a couple weeks ago on the Sixth Amendment right to choice of counsel, United States v. Sellers (No. 09-2516). Among other notable aspects of the case, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sat on the panel.
Here’s what happened:
Sellers initially retained attorney David Wiener to represent him against the drug and gun charges. Apparently, shortly after Sellers engaged Wiener, Wiener approached attorney Michael Oppenheimer and asked him to appear as secondary counsel. Oppenheimer, by all indications, was a stranger to Sellers, having never been hired by him. Nevertheless, Oppenheimer filed an appearance, Wiener did not. (3)
Trial was set for May 12, 2008. On May 7, Sellers requested a continuance so that he could proceed with counsel of his choice, David Weiner, who was scheduled to try another case in state court on May 12. The district judge ultimately moved the federal trial back to May 19, but that conflicted with yet another case Weiner was scheduled to try in state court.
On May 16, Sellers informed the court that he wished to fire Oppenheimer and retain new counsel. On May 19, the date trial was supposed to begin, Sellers informed the court that he had a new lawyer, but the new lawyer would only file an appearance if a continuance were granted so that he could adequately prepare for trial. The court denied this request, requiring Sellers either to proceed pro se or with Oppenheimer. Sellers chose Oppenheimer, and he was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
The Seventh Circuit, however, held that the denial of a continuance violated Sellers’s right to counsel of his choice.