The Colorado Supreme Court issued a decision Oct. 16 ruling the Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice includes the right to fire retained counsel without a requirement to show good cause, even in situations where the defendant wants replacement counsel appointed. But because of the clear instructions Ronquillo v. People has laid out for when a defendant can dismiss counsel and what he or she must understand prior to doing so, the decision may ultimately have more implications for judges than criminal defense attorneys.
“Unlike a lot of Supreme Court decisions, it gives pretty clear instructions to the judge on exactly how they’re to handle this situation step-by-step,” said Barrett Weisz, of counsel at Levin Sitcoff. “And that’s certainly not always the case.” He said he does not believe the ruling will change how attorneys maintain confidentiality about communications with their clients by putting very little information in a motion to withdrawal. “In terms of the practice of defense attorneys, I see this as less significant than it is for how judges handle these situations in the courtroom.”
In the underlying case, several days before his scheduled trial date, Jesus Ronquillo sought to dismiss private counsel he hired to defend him against charges of sexual assault on his son. He requested court-appointed counsel instead. The district court denied the counsel’s motion to withdraw, who cited a breakdown in communication and that Ronquillo could no longer afford to pay him. The district court reasoned non-payment did not justify withdrawal so close to the trial date, especially because out-of-state witnesses were scheduled to appear. The court gave Ronquillo the choice of going forward with his hired counsel or representing himself. Ronquillo chose the former, and later appealed his convictions of the charges.
The Colorado Court of Appeals held the trial court had made a mistake by focusing too much on Ronquillo’s non-payment and not the cited breakdown in communication between him and his hired attorney. The court held the defendant must show good cause for dismissing his retained counsel and getting substitute appointed counsel. But the Supreme Court ruled the Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice includes the right to fire that attorney without good cause, even when a defendant seeks appointed counsel in his or her place.