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Colorado Supreme Court: Criminal Defendant Seeking to Fire Paid, Retained Counsel for Court-Appointed Counsel Need Not Show Good Cause

by Christopher Zoukis

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a criminal defendant may fire retained counsel without any showing of good cause when seeking to replace retained counsel with court-appointed counsel. This is an issue of first impression in Colorado; the Court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has not answered this precise question.

Jesus Ronquillo was charged with several crimes related to the alleged sexual abuse of his son. Several days before trial, he decided that it was time to fire his attorney because he was “tired of throwing away [his] money” on an attorney whom he believed was “in cahoots” with the prosecutor. Ronquillo’s attorney then moved to withdraw, citing a complete breakdown in communication.

The trial court denied both requests, ruling that non-payment was not a sufficient reason to allow a change in attorneys so close to trial. Faced with the choice of either keeping his retained counsel or representing himself, Ronquillo chose to keep his lawyer and was convicted. On appeal, he argued that he should have been allowed to fire his attorney at will, regardless of whether he was seeking appointed counsel.

The Court of Appeals ruled that Ronquillo did have the right to fire his attorney for any reason, but because he wanted appointed counsel, he would need to show good cause. The appellate court remanded for a good cause determination, but the Colorado Supreme Court took up the case first.

In its October 16, 2017 opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court, holding that “the Sixth Amendment right to hire counsel of choice includes the right to fire that counsel without showing good cause, even when a defendant seeks court-appointed counsel as a replacement.” The Court observed that it was joining “the overwhelming majority of courts that have” addressed this issue across the nation.

The high court reached its decision by analyzing the Sixth Amendment, which provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” In the context of paid, retained counsel, the Sixth Amendment guarantee includes the right to hire counsel of choice—regardless of effectiveness. But when a defendant requires appointed counsel, the only guarantee is of “effective assistance of counsel,” not choice of counsel.

 As such, an indigent defendant seeking to fire a court-appointed attorney for a different appointed attorney must show good cause. However, Ronquillo’s case presented an important variation on that analysis. The Court determined that because the decision to fire retained counsel came first there should be no consideration of good cause related to the firing of appointed counsel. The right to counsel of one’s choice includes the right to fire retained counsel without the need for a showing of good cause.

The Supreme Court then instructed that “before a trial court grants a request to release retained counsel from a case, it must ensure that the defendant understands and accepts the consequences of doing so.” The Court provided detailed guidance for trial courts on how to proceed.

Returning to the case at hand, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the Court of Appeals erred by requiring Ronquillo to show good cause for firing retained counsel. Accordingly, it reversed the judgment of the lower court and remanded for further proceedings. See: Ronquillo v. People, 2017 CO 99 (2017). 

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