I don't usually post about criminal law cases but the Appellate Division's recent opinion in State v. Martinez hit close enough to home that I thought it was worth a few words. (I apologize for the uncharacteristically long title. Professor Cole, one of my journalism professors from college, would not be proud.)
A few years back I was fortunate enough to be asked to represent the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey (ACDL-NJ) as amicus curiae in a case before the New Jersey Supreme Court — State v. Miller — that involved a similar issue to the one addressed in Martinez. Miller involved a defendant who was represented by the public defender's office. In the weeks and months leading up to the trial, defendant had been dealing with one public defender, but on the morning of trial a different public defender showed up to represent him. The trial court denied defendant's request for an adjournment, and forced defendant to go to trial with a lawyer he met for the first time on the morning of trial. Defendant was convicted and appealed the trial court's denial of his adjournment request. Both the Appellate Division and the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision. Over an impassioned dissent from Justice Albin, the Supreme Court held that "it would have been preferable for the trial judge to have postponed the commencement of the [trial]," but that the decision to not do so was not an abuse of the trial court's broad discretion to control its own calendar and did not violate the defendant's right to counsel.
In Martinez, the facts were slightly different. Most importantly, as it turns out, unlike Miller, the defendant in Martinez was not represented by a public defender but was instead represented by private counsel. In Martinez, defendant retained a law firm to represent him and expected a specific partner from that firm to represent him at trial. However, the partner was not available on the trial date because of a conflict with another matter. It appears that both the prosecution and defense expected and agreed that the trial date would be adjourned to accomodate the partner's schedule, but the trial court refused to do so. Over defendant's objection, the trial court forced defendant to go to trial, not with the partner that he expected would handle the case, but with an associate from the partner's firm. By all accounts, the associate was capable and experienced, but defendant nonetheless objected to having to go to trial with counsel that was not the counsel he chose.
Defendant was convicted. On appeal, he challenged the trial court's decision to deny his adjournment request. The Appellate Division agreed with defendant, reversed the trial court's decision, and remanded the case for a new trial. In doing so, the Appellate Division noted that the trial court had failed to consider the factors set forth in State v. Hayes that a trial court must balance when evaluating a request like the one made in Martinez. These factors include:
the length of the requested delay; whether other continuances have been requested and granted; the balanced convenience or inconvenience to the litigants, witnesses, counsel, and the court; whether the requested delay is for legitimate reasons, or whether it is dilatory, purposeful, or contrived; whether the defendant contributed to the circumstance which gives rise to the request for a continuance; whether the defendant has other competent counsel prepared to try the case, including the consideration of whether the other counsel was retained as lead or associate counsel; whether denying the continuance will result in identifiable prejudice to defendant's case, and if so, whether this prejudice is of a material or substantial nature; the complexity of the case; and other relevant factors which may appear in the context of any particular case
Because the trial court did not engage in the required balancing test, but only considered "calendar considerations" when ruling on defendant's request, the Appellate Division held that its decision was arbitrary and could not stand.
The Appellate Division did not need to consider whether defendant had been prejudiced by having the associate represent him at trial rather than the partner. (According to the trial court, the associate put forth a vigorous defense and represented defendant "very well.") As the Appellate Division noted: "Deprivation of the right [to the effective assistance of counsel] is 'complete' when the defendant is erroneously prevented from being represented by the lawyer he wants. regardless of the quality of the representation he received."
The difference between Martinez and Miller can be found in a footnote in the Appellate Division's decision. In Miller, the Supreme Court distinguished defendants who are represented by private counsel from those who have counsel appointed for them. The former have the right to counsel of their choice, but the latter do not. As the Supreme Court observed in Miller and as the Appellate Division noted in Martinez: "Where a defendant obtains assigned counsel, the defendant's 'right to be represented does not entail the right to a public defender of his or her choice." Personally, I am not sure that I see a difference between the two that would justify this distinction, but maybe that is just sour grapes from having been on the wrong end of the decision in Miller.