California Kept in Line|With Right to Counsel

     WASHINGTON (CN) – A man who handled his own defense after waiving counsel three times does not deserve habeas relief, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
     California charged Otis Lee Rodgers in 2009 with making criminal threats, assault with a firearm, and being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition.
     Rodgers waived his right to counsel before arraignment but changed his mind on the issue repeatedly before trial.
     After firing the lawyer he first retained, Rodgers waived his right to counsel a second time. Then he asked the court to appoint an attorney to defend him. Though the court complied with the request, Rodgers surrendered his right to counsel a third time and defended himself pro se at trial in June 2003.
     After a jury convicted Rodgers, the trial court refused to provide him with an attorney so that he could move for a new trial. Rodgers petitioned for federal habeas relief after the California Court of Appeal affirmed his conviction and sentence.
     A federal judge sided with the state, concluded that the courts had not trampled Rodgers’ right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment by refusing to provide an attorney for the new-trial motion.
     A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed, leading the state to petition the Supreme Court for a certiorari.
     The justices summarily reversed Monday.
     “It is unnecessary for present purposes to judge the merits of these two approaches or determine what rule the Sixth Amendment in fact establishes for post-waiver requests of appointment of counsel,” the unsigned ruling states. “All this case requires – and all the Court of Appeals was empowered to do under §2254(d)(1) – is to observe that, in light of the tension between the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of ‘the right to counsel at all critical stages of the criminal process,’ and its concurrent promise of ‘a constitutional right to proceed without counsel when [a criminal defendant] voluntarily and intelligently elects to do so,’ it cannot be said that Cali­fornia’s approach is contrary to or an unreasonable application of the ‘general standard[s]’ established by the court’s assistance-of-counsel cases.
     “The Court of Appeals’ contrary conclusion rested in part on the mistaken belief that circuit precedent may be used to refine or sharpen a general principle of Supreme Court jurisprudence into a specific legal rule that this court has not announced,” the justices added. “The error in this approach is subtle, yet substantial. Although an appellate panel may, in accordance with its usual law-of-the-circuit procedures, look to circuit precedent to ascertain whether it has al­ready held that the particular point in issue is clearly established by Supreme Court precedent, it may not canvass circuit decisions to determine whether a particular rule of law is so widely accepted among the federal circuits that it would, if presented to this court, be accepted as correct. The Court of Appeals failed to abide by that limitation here. Its resulting hold­ing was erroneous and must be reversed.

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