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Attorney withdrawal

You work out a great plea bargain for your client, but he refuses to take it.  Has this happened to you?

Probably not for at least a day or two.  It happened to the lawyer in State v. Simpson, so he decided to bail, and filed a motion to withdraw as counsel.  The trial court denied the motion, and last week the 8th District agreed and closed the door on that tactic.

The actual issue on appeal was whether the trial court had to hold a hearing on the motion.  Way back in 1969, in State v. Deal, the Supreme Court had ruled that a trial judge was required to hold a hearing if an indigent defendant raised specific objections to his appointed attorney.  The court in Simpson emphasized that the objections had to be specific; a general "I don't like this guy" isn't going to cut it.  In fact, the defendant hadn't registered any complaints about his attorney, but instead relied on appeal on the fact that the court hadn't held a hearing on the motion to withdraw.  Since Simpson hadn't raised any objections himself, the court held, the trial judge wasn't obligated under Deal to hold a hearing.

Simpson's Plan B was to argue that the trial court should have granted the motion to withdraw anyway.  That contention met a similar fate.  The court noted that the conditions for mandatory withdrawal didn't exist, which left permissive withdrawal as a basis.  The court agreed that the lawyer did allege a permissive reason for withdrawal, i.e., that "Simpson was making 'it unreasonably difficult for counsel to provide Defendant with effective assistance' because he was listening to the 'advice [of] a non-lawyer' to go to trial, rather than accept the plea."  But that didn't make the cut, either; it was Simpson's right to take the plea bargain or not, and a disagreement on that score didn't create the type of conflict which would justify the attorney in withdrawing.

So what's a poor boy -- er, lawyer -- to do?  The obvious lesson of Simpson is that if you're going to try to get off a case, your client has to be on board:  you're going to have a tougher time selling the idea that there's a complete breakdown in the attorney-client relationship if your client is sitting on the sidelines of that dispute.  And even then, there should be more than just a disagreement on a plea bargain.  It's hard to fault the Simpson court on this:  as I said at the outset, a client balking at a plea proposal isn't exactly unprecedented, and when you sign up for a case, you do so with the knowledge of that possibility occurring.  Especially when you're retained, as the lawyer in Simpson was.

If you're looking for a sure-fire method of getting off a case, though, look no farther than State v. Williams, in which the Supreme Court reversed a trial judge's denial of an attorney's motion to withdraw, where the defendant had punched defense counsel -- in full view of the jury, no less -- just prior to the mitigation phase of a capital trial.  There's probably been a case or two that everybody's had where they'd have been willing to take a beating to get off of it, so if you're willing to go that extra mile, there it is.

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