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Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Trump Circuit Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Give Ineffective Assistance of Counsel A Pass

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Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Trump Circuit Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Give Ineffective Assistance of Counsel A Pass

“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties.

In August 2018, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit, issued a ruling against the plaintiff in a case where his lawyer put his own interest before his client’s interest as a result of a state pay cut. Judge Amy Coney Barrett cast the deciding vote in the case.

In Cornell D. Reynolds v. Randell Hepp, Reynolds was convicted in a fatal carjacking. Reynolds filed an appeal and was appointed a public defender. His public defender filed a post-conviction motion for a new trial, indicating that his trial attorney was ineffective because he failed to raise an alibi defense for Reynolds. That motion was denied. The public defender then took the matter to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. The case was sent back to the trial court and again, the trial court found that Reynolds was not entitled to a new trial. Reynolds’ public defender filed again for a new appeal. During that process, Reynolds’ public defender was told by the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office that he was spending too much time on his cases and would not be paid for any more work on Reynolds’ case. The public defender was also told that he would no longer be assigned cases. The public defender informed Reynolds he would not do additional work on his case unless Reynolds could pay him himself. Reynolds could not. Since the public defender was no longer being paid, he did not investigate an equal protection challenge as a possible argument on the new appeal. Reynolds lost again on the appeal.

Reynolds later filed a petition for habeas corpus in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals alleging among, other things, that Wisconsin violated his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment right to counsel by ceasing to pay his public defender. Wisconsin’s failure to pay his public defender caused the attorney to stop any further investigations or leads in his appeal. Reynolds was again denied relief. Reynolds then filed a federal habeas corpus petition, alleging that the State of Wisconsin deprived him of counsel because it created a conflict of interest. The Seventh Circuit majority, including Judge Barrett and Judge Hamilton, found that Reynolds failed to meet the prejudice test established in a Supreme Court case called Strickland  v. Washington, which is “but for the counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” The Seventh Circuit found that that conflict of interest did not change the ultimate outcome of the trial.

The dissenting judge, Chief Judge Diane P. Wood, explained that Reynolds did establish that his constitutional rights were violated as outlined in another decision, which created a standard for situations where Strickland was inadequate. In a case called Cuyler v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court held that the defendant must show that an actual conflict of interest adversely impacted the attorney’s performance. Here, Reynolds’ public defender did in fact limit his work for Reynolds because he was no longer being paid by the State of Wisconsin. As Chief Judge Wood said herself, “If a lawyer puts his or her own interests first, the client is the loser.”