486 U. S. 153
May 23, 1988
Mark Wheat was involved in a huge drug trafficking conspiracy. A lawyer named Eugene Iredale represented two of Wheat’s co-conspirators. Wheat wanted Iredale to represent him too. The District Court refused to allow this, because of the conflict of interest, even though Wheat and the other two co-conspirators signed waivers indicating their consent. The question was whether the District Court’s determination violated Wheat’s Sixth Amendment rights.
The Court ruled 5-4 that the District Court’s ruling was acceptable. Rehnquist stressed that lower court decisions of this sort needed deference, especially because predicting which conflicts of interest would really derail a trial was tricky and murky prognostication indeed. Also significant was that trial courts often got burned on appeal for allowing representation when conflicts of interest existed, even when waiver had been obtained. The potential for devastating conflict was there, and the District Court had not acted unreasonably in response, concluded Rehnquist.
Marshall, joined by Brennan, would have none of this. Citing some earlier decisions, he said that conflict of interest decisions of the trial court deserved no deference at all, because of how fundamental importance of a defendant’s right to the counsel of their choice. Digging into the facts, Marshall said that the real potential for conflict of interest during Wheat’s trial was almost non-existent. Stevens, joined by Blackmun, was prepared to grant some deference, but also thought, based on the facts, that the alleged conflicts of interest were too trivial to deny Wheat his first choice of counsel.
It’s possible that the District Court really was just trying to screw over Wheat, but I can’t shed too many tears for him. Because Rehnquist is right that the lower courts often face an unwinnable guessing game. Had they allowed Iredale to represent Wheat, and had Wheat lost, he might well have appealed based on the argument that the trial court should have disqualified Iredale. If defendants like Wheat are going to appeal a guilty verdict no matter how the trial court rules on conflict of interest questions, then the courts do deserve a healthy degree of deference.