Yesterday’s SCOTUS decision in United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez is the most recent installment in a fascinating debate about the function of appellate reversal and the value of procedural rights in criminal cases.
Of course, appellate crimlaw folks know all about the “harmless error” doctrine of Chapman v. California and the important distinction (drawn in Arizona v. Fulminante) between “structural errors” in the criminal process (which require appellate reversal of convictions without regard for their impact on outcome) and “trial errors” in the criminal process (which require appellate reversal of convictions unless they are “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt” to the outcome.
The question in Gonzalez-Lopez was whether an appellate court ought to reverse a conviction automatically upon finding that a trial court denied the defendant his 6th Amendment right to counsel of his choice, or whether it ought to reverse that conviction only if the record reflected that the outcome was affected by the defendant’s not having his chosen attorney beside him. (There was no question that the trial court actually denied the defendant his 6th Amendment right; the defendant had his own lawyer all picked out, but the trial court wouldn’t allow that lawyer to represent the defendant or to participate in the trial at all.)
The issue is a bit technical, but it provides an excellent window into what seems to be a very basic disagreement on the Court about the purpose of appellate review in criminal cases, and about the nature of trial and investigative rights in the criminal process.