Cantu v. State (1996)
In Cantu v. State, 930 S.W.2d 594 (Tex. Crim. App. 1996), the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that the suspension of trial counsel's law license before trial does not necessarily result in a per se denial of a defendant's Sixth-Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. Id. at 602.
The court explained that "a never-been-licensed layman" could never be considered "counsel" under the Sixth Amendment and therefore representation by such a person would always constitute a complete denial of counsel. Id.
For attorneys who were once validly licensed but have subsequently been suspended or disbarred, however, a case-by-case determination is warranted:
"A suspended or disbarred attorney is incompetent as a matter of law if the reasons for the discipline imposed reflect so poorly upon the attorney's competence that it may reasonably be inferred that the attorney was incompetent to represent the defendant in the proceeding in question. It is possible that the reasons for discipline could be so egregious that the attorney would not be competent to represent any criminal defendant. Or, the reasons for discipline might in some way be relevant to the attorney's responsibilities in the proceedings in question so as to give rise to an inference that the attorney was incompetent to participate in those particular proceedings." Id.
The court then listed the following relevant factors in determining whether an attorney is incompetent as a matter of law:
(1) severity of the sanction (suspension versus disbarment; length of suspension),
(2) the reasons for the discipline,
(3) whether the discipline was based upon an isolated incident or a pattern of conduct,
(4) similarities between the type of proceeding resulting in discipline and the type of proceeding in question,
(5) similarities between kinds of conduct resulting in the attorney's discipline and any duties or responsibilities the attorney had in connection with the proceeding in question,
(6) temporal proximity between the conduct for which the attorney was disciplined and the proceeding in question, and
(7) the nature and extent of the attorney's professional experience and accomplishments. Id. at 602-03.
While the underlying facts should be viewed in the light most favorable to the trial court's ruling, whether the facts establish incompetence as a matter of law is a question of law to be reviewed de novo. Id. at 603.
If an attorney is found incompetent as a matter of law, the court is not required to "inquire into attorney errors or prejudice." Id. at n.8.
The Court of appeals held that the defendant's counsel's suspension from the practice of law before trial constituted a per se violation of the right to counsel. Id. at 595.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals opined that "a suspended or disbarred attorney is incompetent as a matter of law if the reasons for the discipline imposed reflect so poorly upon the attorney's competence that it may be reasonably inferred that the attorney was incompetent to represent the defendant in the proceeding in question." Id. at 602.
The court thereafter held, however, that because the suspension in that particular case did not relate to the trial attorney's performance in the courtroom, the suspension did not render counsel incompetent as a matter of law, and did not cause the defendant a complete denial of the right to counsel. Id. at 603.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case to the court of appeals to address the defendant's ineffective assistance claim under Strickland. Id. at 603.