WRIGHT v. VAN PATTEN
When Joseph Van Patten pled no contest to a charge of first-degree reckless homicide in a Wisconsin state court, his lawyer was not at his side during the hearing. Rather, the lawyer was linked to the courtroom by speakerphone. After the court imposed the maximum penalty of 25 years on Van Patten, he retained new counsel and moved in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals to have his plea withdrawn. Van Patten claimed that his lawyer's failure to appear in person and the decision to conduct the plea hearing via speakerphone violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
The Wisconsin appellate court, applying the Court's 1984 ruling in Strickland, concluded that Van Patten's counsel's representation was not "deficient or prejudicial" and denied the motion. Van Patten then filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal court. The district court denied the petition, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that Van Patten's claim should have been analyzed under the Court's 1984 decision in Cronic, not Strickland, and came out in Van Patten's favor. The case came to the Court for a resolution of this conflicting case law.
Does a lawyer's representation of his client via speakerphone at a plea hearing for first-degree reckless homicide constitute a violation of that client's Sixth Amendment right to counsel?
Unfortunately for Van Patten, the Court felt that there was no concrete prohibition of representation by speakerphone in the federal case law and therefore determined that "no clearly established law contrary to the state court's conclusion justifies collateral relief." Therefore, the Court reversed the Seventh Circuit's decision granting Van Patten relief and remanded the case to the lower courts for further proceedings. Justice John Paul Stevens concurred in the otherwise unanimous decision, applying an "objectively unreasonable" standard to the Wisconsin trial court's determination and finding that it passed the test.