Ethical Responsibilities of Court-Appointed Lawyer
Opinion addresses the ethical responsibilities of a lawyer appointed to represent a criminal defendant in a capital case who, in good faith, believes he lacks the experience and ability to represent the defendant competently.
Attorney A was appointed by a district court judge to serve as lead counsel in defending an indigent defendant ("Defendant") against a charge of first-degree murder. Attorney A is licensed to practice in North Carolina but has limited experience in representing criminal defendants. He practices law in a rural area without a sufficient library and other resources appropriate for the ongoing legal research necessary for a capital case. Attorney A believes he is not competent to represent a client in a capital murder case. He has never been on any court list for appointment to represent indigent defendants.
Attorney A filed a motion to withdraw with the district court which advised the court that he did not believe he was competent to provide legal representation in such a matter. After a hearing, the district court concluded that Attorney A is competent and denied the motion to withdraw. Attorney A in good faith still believes that he is not competent to represent Defendant. Is it ethical for Attorney A to take additional steps to legally challenge the appointment?
Yes. Rule 6 of the Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a lawyer shall not handle a legal matter that he knows he is not competent to handle unless he can associate an experienced lawyer to assist him. If a lawyer who is appointed to represent an indigent criminal defendant honestly and reasonably concludes that he is not competent to represent the client, at a minimum, he has a duty to advise the court of his perceived lack of competency, as Attorney A did in the preceding inquiry. If the court determines that the lawyer is competent but the lawyer in good faith continues to believe that he is not competent and his representation would be harmful to the client's interests, it is not unethical for the lawyer to challenge the appointment by appropriate legal procedures, including but not limited to, making a motion to have the appointment set aside in superior court, filing a petition for certiorari with the appellate courts or appealing a contempt ruling for refusal to serve. If the lawyer controverts his appointment through such legal proceedings, he must be acting in good faith and not merely to avoid the inconvenience or expense of the appointment.See Rule 7.2(a)(1).
Although the lawyer has an initial duty to advise the court that he believes he is not competent to handle a matter, if the court nevertheless determines that the lawyer is competent and refuses to release the lawyer from the appointment, it is not unethical for the lawyer to proceed with the representation on this basis without further challenge to the appointment.
Is it ethical for Attorney A to refuse to serve as appointed counsel for Defendant and accept the court's sanction?
Yes, if Attorney A has unsuccessfully challenged the appointment through reasonably available legal procedures and he continues, as a matter of professional responsibility, to believe that he is not competent to serve as legal counsel to Defendant, it is not unethical for Attorney A to refuse to serve and to accept the court's sanction. See Rule 6(a)(1).
Would the responses to inquiry #1 or inquiry #2 be different if Attorney A is appointed to assist another experienced lawyer who will serve as lead counsel?
Yes. Whether Attorney A is appointed lead counsel or appointed to assist an experienced lawyer would be relevant to the assessment of Attorney A's competency to represent Defendant. As noted in Rule 6, a lawyer may consider himself competent to handle a legal matter he would otherwise not be competent to handle if he associates an experienced lawyer to assist him with the matter. If Attorney A is serving as "second chair" to an experienced lawyer, it would not be reasonable for him to conclude that he is not competent to handle the matter.
Attorney A's malpractice insurer has expressed concern that Attorney A's representation of Defendant in the capital case may present an unreasonable risk of exposure to a malpractice claim, particularly since it would require Attorney A to practice in an area outside his chosen areas of concentration. If Attorney A represents Defendant, he believes he should make a record that will document his own lack of competence in order to preserve a due process or other constitutional challenge to the state system of appointing attorneys for indigent defendants charged with capital crimes. By so doing, Attorney A fears he may be building a civil case against himself for malpractice if Defendant is convicted of first-degree murder or some lesser charge. Does Attorney A have a conflict of interest?
No. The fact that Attorney A's malpractice insurer has expressed concern regarding Attorney A's representation of Defendant does not create a disqualifying conflict of interest because Attorney A's responsibility to his client should not be limited or affected by his malpractice carrier's concern. See Rule 5.1(b). If Attorney A accepts the appointment of the court and proceeds with the representation, Attorney A has a duty to zealously represent his client to the best of his ability. See Canon VII. This includes taking whatever steps are necessary to make himself competent to handle the case including, but not limited to, attempting to associate an experienced lawyer or seeking the court appointment of an experienced lawyer to assist him, educating himself about the relevant law, utilizing available resources such as the resource center in the office of the appellate defender (which provides assistance to counsel for those accused of capital crimes), traveling to an adequate law library, etc. Attorney A may not pursue a course of conduct that will intentionally prejudice or damage Defendant during the course of the professional relationship. See Rule 7.1(A)(3). This would include approaching the representation from the perspective that his job is to document his own incompetence.
If Attorney A represents Defendant to the best of his ability, but concludes that he may have committed an error or errors that were prejudicial to Defendant's case, he must advise Defendant that mistakes were made that may have been harmful to Defendant's case and that it is in Defendant's best interest to consult independent counsel regarding his legal rights. See Rule 6(b)(2)(1) and (2).
Note: Whether a lawyer can be required, over his objection, to represent a criminal defendant if he has not voluntarily placed his name on a list for court appointments is a legal issue which the Ethics Committee has no authority to address. Moreover, no opinion is expressed herein as to the constitutional propriety of appointing inexperienced lawyers to represent indigent criminal defendants in capital cases.