Warning: do not read this post if you are a narcissistic trial attorney or an attorney who has espoused ludicrous legal positions.
I blog about it often, always in the context of the duty to provide clients with competent representation. For obvious reasons, I never address the legal analysis that applies when assessing whether an accused is competent to waive the right to counsel.
Well, today, the latter meets the former.
In an opinion issued earlier this week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit analyzed whether a criminal defendant was competent to waive counsel. The court’s analysis includes reference to whether, upon waiving counsel, the defendant provided himself with competent representation. The Legal Profession Blog and ABA Journal reported the opinion.
As far as this post is concerned, I’m most interested in sharing two sentences from the court’s opinion. As far as seminars on the duty of competence are concerned, I cannot wait until I’m able to work at least one of those sentences into my presentation.
But first, some background.
The court’s opening paragraph succinctly sets the stage:
- “After wrecking his car, Joseph Ziegler falsely claimed to be an Assistant United States Attorney to avoid charges and retrieve his impounded car. The real United States Attorney prosecuted him for impersonating a federal officer. Though not a lawyer, Ziegler waived his right to counsel and represented himself at trial. The jury convicted him.”
The next sentence gets us closer to the sentences I’m most interested in sharing:
- “Ziegler now claims that the district court erred in permitting Ziegler to represent himself because he was incapable of doing so and because the district court failed to make necessary inquiries into his mental competency to waive counsel.”
Then, after concluding that the defendant was competent to waive counsel:
- “Ziegler’s performance during trial only confirmed his competency. Ziegler gave an opening and closing argument, conducted far-reaching cross-examinations, introduced evidence, including three witnesses, and won several objections. While Ziegler continued to make some bizarre statements and mistakes, those occurrences related more to a lack of training and experience, which is to be expected of any non-lawyer, than to concerns about competency. In fact, Ziegler did quite well for someone proceeding pro se. His apparent ability to consider strategic choices, develop a defense strategy, and operate in the courtroom is all evidence of competence to both stand trial and waive the right to counsel.”
And, finally, here’s the paragraph that includes the sentences that I most wanted to share. (I’ve omitted the internal citation.)
- “Still, Ziegler contends that his grandiose statements about his legal acumen, his combative approach to witnesses, his bizarre questions and theories, and his arguments with the court should have raised red flags. We disagree. Many great trial lawyers are combative and a bit full of themselves, if not outright narcissists. And ‘persons of unquestioned competence have espoused ludicrous legal positions.’”
I cannot wait until the seminar at which I’m first able to work in the following remark:
- “You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen as disciplinary and bar counsel. As the Fourth Circuit has noted, ‘persons of unquestioned competence have espoused ludicrous legal positions.’”
PS: If the defendant had been a lawyer, he might’ve qualified for Was That Wrong?