Yesterday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals released a published opinion (In Re Bowen) in an original mandamus proceeding. The relators (i.e. petitioners), two capital murder defendants, requested that the CCA direct the trial judge to rescind his order disqualifying the relators’ mutually retained counsel of choice. The State had moved that the counsel be disqualified due to a perceived conflict of interest and the fact that he would be called to cross-examine another one of his clients (a witness that the State intended to call).
The two defendants and the other client had all signed waivers regarding the actual or apparent conflict, but that did not satisfy the trial judge. In granting the State’s motion to disqualify the counsel, the trial judge stated:
It’s really about the integrity of the judicial process and the public’s perception of the judicial process and what it would look like to go to a trial on a capital murder case where the same attorney representing both defendants is also representing one of the prosecution’s witnesses.
He went on:
I know how these things play out. I’m telling you I can see some reporter that doesn’t understand diddly about what’s going on in the trial but, you know, can pick up an issue like this and make a story out of it.
Surely he doesn’t mean me. I’m confident that I at least know diddly about the system, if not more.
In the mandamus proceeding, the CCA was called upon to overturn the trial court’s order. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court case, Wheat v. United States, 486 U.S. 153 (1988), the CCA explained that trial courts “must recognize a presumption in favor of a defendant’s counsel of choice.” The CCA also noted that “when a trial court unreasonably or arbitrarily interferes with the defendant’s right to choose counsel, its actions rise to the level of a constitutional (6th Amendment) violation.”
The CCA emphasized that conflict of interest cases really turn on the facts found by the trial court. In this case, the trial defense counsel offered a sealed affidavit explaining why his mutual representation would not amount to a conflict. He did not share his reasoning in open court for fear that the State would then know what he had up his sleeve. Once the CCA examined the defense counsel’s affidavit, it was convinced that there was no conflict (especially since all parties waived any potential conflict). Accordingly, the CCA held that the trial judge had violated the defendants’ 6th Amendment right to counsel and directed that the judge rescind his order.