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People v. Knowles, 88 N.Y.2d 763 (October 22, 1996).





Mr. Baum, head of Legal Aid Society's Criminal Defense Division, was appointed to represent Defendant, who had been charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree. Legal Aid assigned two attorneys, Mr. Jones and Ms. Glover, to conduct the defense. Jones was the defense attorney of record, but both attorneys established a professional relationship with Defendant. Glover had not participated in any pre-trial activities. At one point in the trial, Jones requested that the court allow Glover to cross examine the arresting officer. The court denied the request explaining that routine cases such as Defendant's were almost always tried by only one attorney. In response, Jones requested that Glover at least be allowed to sit at the counsel table. The court again denied Jones's request despite the fact that two attorneys sat at the prosecution's table. As its reason, the court provided the following:
I will put on the record and be very frank, this defendant is black, you are white, the other attorneys are white, Ms. Glover is black. I think all you're doing is trying to put in some type of sympathy, to have a very seasoned appearance . . . . I think you're trying to gain some undue advantage and I will not permit that. I think your application is made in bad faith.
Defendant was convicted after a jury trial. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction although expressing strong disapproval of the trial court's "totally unacceptable" reason for denying Jones's request to have Glover's assistance. A Judge of the Court of Appeals granted Defendant's request for leave to appeal.



Whether a trial judge commits reversible error when it arbitrarily interferes with an attorney-client relationship.


Yes. Holding that a trial judge commits reversible error when it arbitrarily interferes with an attorney-client relationship, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the Appellate Division.


Cases Cited by the Court

Cases Cited by the Concurrence

Other Sources Cited by the Concurrence

Cases Cited by the Dissent

Other Sources Cited by the Dissent



State of the Law Before People v. Knowles

New York recognizes a defendant's right to counsel under both the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution (U.S. Const. amend. VI) and Article I § 6 of the New York Constitution (N.Y. Const. art I § 6). People v. Joseph, 84 N.Y.2d 995, 997 (N.Y. 1994). This right includes "the right of a criminal defendant to be represented by counsel of his own choosing." People v. Arroyave, 49 N.Y.2d 264, 271(N.Y. 1980) (citations omitted).

New York courts have justified this policy as serving several needs including,

the need for a defendant to be willing to confide freely and fully in his attorney so that the channels of communication and advice between counsel and his client may remain free-flowing and unobstructed. Mutual co-operation between defendant and counsel is often times a critical prerequisite to effective legal representation, and an atmosphere of trust and respect can best be obtained if a defendant's choice of counsel is honored.
People v. Arroyave, 49 N.Y.2d at 270.

However, this constitutional right has limits. The Supreme Court rejected "the claim that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a 'meaningful relationship' between an accused and his counsel." Morris v. Slappy, 461 U.S. 1, 13 (1982). The New York courts have held that a client is entitled to meaningful representation which "does not mean 'perfect representation.'" People v. Ford, 86 N.Y.2d 397, 404 (N.Y. 1995). A defendant's right to counsel is not absolute and is "subject to the right of the court to impose reasonable rules to control the conduct of the trial." People v. Hilliard, 73 N.Y.2d 584, 586 (N.Y. 1989).

The right to effective counsel may be compromised by either the defendant's own attorney, the prosecuting attorney, or the court itself. "[T]he right to effective assistance of counsel and the right to retain counsel of one's choice may clash when a retained attorney is involved in an apparent conflict of interest." People v. Gomberg, 38 N.Y.2d 307, 313 (N.Y. 1975). A public prosecutor may be removed when "necessary to protect a defendant from 'actual prejudice arising from a demonstrated conflict of interest or a substantial risk of an abuse of confidence.'" People v English, 88 N.Y.2d 30, 33-34 (N.Y. 1996), citing Matter of Schumer v. Hotlzman, 60 N.Y.2d 46, 55 (N.Y. 1983). A trial court's actions can deny defendant the right to counsel when, for example, a trial court forbids a defendant to discuss upcoming trial testimony with his attorney over a weekend recess. Joseph, 84 N.Y.2d at 996.

A court must examine the specific facts of each case in order to determine "whether a defendant has been denied his right to retain counsel." Arroyave, 49 N.Y.2d at 271. This fact-based inquiry does not require a finding of actual prejudice in order to determine that defendant was denied the constitutional right to counsel. A reviewing court "must reverse the conviction and grant a new trial, without evaluating whether the errors contributed to the defendant's conviction." Hilliard, 73 N.Y.2d at 587. "The constitutional guarantee to be represented by counsel of one's choosing is a fundamental right, and the doctrine of harmless error is inapplicable upon a showing that such right has been abridged." Arroyave, 49 N.Y.2d at 273 (citing People v. Felder, 47 N.Y.2d 287, 294-296 (N.Y. 1979)).

Assessing whether counsel has provided defendant with "meaningful representation" under the New York Constitution, the Court of Appeals held that "[s]o long as the evidence, the law, and the circumstances of a particular case, viewed in totality and as of the time of the representation, reveal that the attorney provided meaningful representation, the constitutional requirement will have been met." Ford, 86 N.Y.2d at 404.

A court should hesitate before interfering with an established attorney-client relationship. However, courts are justified in interfering with a defendant's right to be represented by a particular attorney "in circumstances in which it appeared very likely that his continuance in the case would work unfair prejudice either to the prosecution or the defendant. " People v. Hall, 46 N.Y.2d 873, 875 (N.Y. 1979). See also Gomberg, 38 N.Y.2d at 313 ("[a] court should not arbitrarily interfere with the attorney-client relationship").

Effect of People v. Knowles on Current Law

The majority in Knowles limits judicial interference with a defendant's established attorney-client relationship to two situations: first, those in which the counsel's participation presents a conflict of interest and, second, those in which defense tactics may compromise the orderly management of the trial or the fair administration of justice. The majority broadly frames the issue in terms of interference with an established attorney-client relationship rather than narrowly in terms of the right to choose counsel. This broad characterization includes a defendants' established attorney client relationships with both appointed as well as retained counsel. The majority disagrees with the dissent's characterization of the issue in Knowles as whether indigent defendants have a constitutional guarantee to have two attorneys represent them in a criminal case.

The trial judge's exclusion of Glover from Defendant's trial was arbitrary and an abuse of discretion, according to the majority. The trial court's determination that defense counsel sought to use an African-American attorney to garner the jury's sympathy for an African-American defendant was neither supported by the record nor was it shown that it "created any conflict of interest, or resulted in prejudice to the prosecution of the defense," 1996 N.Y. 204 at para. 7 (citing People v. Hall, 46 N.Y.2d 873, 875 (N.Y. 1979)). The judge excluded Glover despite the claim that Defendant had established an attorney client relationship with Ms. Glover.

Following that reasoning, the majority also found that including Glover would not impair the orderly administration of the trial process. The majority found there were already two attorneys at the prosecution table when defense counsel sought to include Glover. Since the judge had already permitted the assisting prosecution attorney to participate in the trial, "no legitimate claim can be made that Glover's presence at the defense table would have impaired the efficient conduct of the trial." Id. at para. 9.

When there are multiple defense attorneys, the trial court may impose reasonable restrictions to ensure that the trial proceedings are fair and efficient, regardless of whether there are multiple prosecution attorneys. In this case, defense counsel told the trial judge they would not make simultaneous applications to the court.

Excluding Glover interfered with Defendant's established attorney-client relationship. The trial judge failed to justify the attorney's exclusion on either grounds of conflict of interest or trial management. In dicta, the majority noted that excluding Glover on the grounds that she and Defendant shared the same race was intolerable.


The concurrence in Knowles agrees with the majority that the trial court should have allowed Glover's participation. However, the concurrence bases its conclusion on equal protection, rather than procedural, grounds. In essence, the concurrence argues that Glover's exclusion violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (U.S. Const. amend. XIV) and Article I, Section 1.1 of the New York Constitution (N.Y. Const. art. I, § 1.1), which are both equal protection clauses. The concurrence further states that the exclusion was clearly a gross violation of the public policy of New York State to render justice without regard to race.

This equal protection argument is based on the remarks the trial judge offered when deciding to exclude the participation of the second Legal Aid attorney. The trial court postulated that Legal Aid was trying to gain an unfair advantage by having Glover, an African-American female, participate in the trial of an African-American criminal defendant. The trial judge issued a procedural ruling based on the skin color of the criminal defendant and his counsel.

The majority does not address the issue of equal protection because it was not raised at the trial level. Ordinarily, legal arguments are heard on appeal only if they were raised at trial. However, the concurrence finds two exceptions within which to fit the instant case.

First, legal arguments may be heard for the first time on appeal when the opposing party has offered no legal counter step that might have been taken had the arguments been proffered below. In the instant case, the state has not offered a colorable counter argument to an equal protection claim that might have been tendered to the court below.

Second, certain issues affecting public policy may be reviewed for the first time on appeal. The concurrence argues that the elimination of racial discrimination from official acts of a state is most compelling in the judicial system. Accordingly, the equal protection claim implicated in the instant case warranted review on appeal despite the fact that it was not raised at trial.


The dissent in Knowles agrees that a court should respect a defendant's choice of retained counsel in light of the constitutional guarantee of effective assistance of counsel. However, the dissent finds no similar constraint with respect to assigned counsel. The choice of assigned counsel rests with the absolute discretion of the trial court for reasons of practicality and economy. Thus the trial court's actions, whether proper or not, do not raise constitutional issues unless the defendant was consequently denied effective assistance of counsel.

The majority opinion, as characterized by the dissent, focuses too heavily on the attorney-client relationship, rather than on the adequacy of assistance rendered by assigned counsel. The defendant does not even claim to have received ineffective assistance. Rather, the claim is that the court interfered with the relationship between the defendant and one of his attorneys. The dissent finds no constitutional reason to reverse because Defendant received effective legal assistance and possessed no constitutional rights to choice of counsel.

Another issue the dissent considers is whether the trial court's actions may constitute trial error. Finding that the defendant received a fair trial despite the trial court's admittedly improper actions, the dissent considers the actions in question to be harmless and, therefore, not grounds for reversal.

Regardless, the dissent notes that Defendant's assigned counsel was the Legal Aid Society, and the Society chose Mr. Jones, not Ms. Glover, to represent the defendant. Thus, the trial court's actions should not even raise the issue of interference with assigned counsel.

Finally, the dissent criticizes the majority for relying on cases that do not address the issue in this case. For example, the majority declares that "an atmosphere of trust and respect" between attorney and client is a "cornerstone of the adversary system", 1996 N.Y. Int. 204 at para. 5, citing Wilson v Mintzes, 761 F.2d 275, 179 (6th Cir. 1985). But the sentence in Wilson that contained the reference to "cornerstone" states in its entirety that,

[t]he right to choose one's own counsel is an essential component of the Sixth Amendment because, were a defendant not provided the opportunity to select his own counsel at his own expense, substantial risk would arise that the basic trust between counsel and client, which is a cornerstone of the adversary system, would be undercut.
Id. at 179 (emphasis added). Other cases the majority relies on to support the proposition that a defendant may choose assigned counsel actually concern an indigent defendant's right to assigned counsel, rather than choice of assigned counsel.

Unanswered Questions

Left unclear by the Knowles decision is what constitutes valid judicial interference. A judge still retains the authority to conduct trials in his or her courtroom in an orderly manner, but the majority opinion provides little guidance about how a judge may exercise this power. The majority does not provide an example of the type of record needed for a judge to prevent the inclusion of additional counsel.

When defendants retain private counsel, the judge and prosecution anticipate the involvement of all lawyers working for the defense. The jury also suspects they will hear from all attorneys seated before them. These expectations form a basis for protecting defendants from judicial interference with their choices of counsel. Knowles extends this protection to assigned counsel. But this extension could cause the unintended result that defendants to whom groups such as Legal Aid Society are assigned may have as many attorneys represent them as they or their counsel wish, provided they are able to show some attorney-client relationship exists. Without a viable definition of the procedure a judge should follow, many on the bench may be reluctant to take actions necessary to preserve fair proceedings.

Another question left unsettled is whether a judge may find a procedure or substitution irregular if it is not presented during pre-trial. Once again, without the necessary guidance, many justices will be reluctant to have their courtroom become the testing ground for a future clarification of the rule.

Survey of the Law in Other Jurisdictions

Other jurisdictions agree with the general proposition that the court cannot arbitrarily remove appointed counsel thereby interfering with an established attorney-client relationship. The D.C. Circuit held that there must be a justifiable basis for the court to remove an appointed attorney and that "mere disagreement as to the conduct of the defense certainly is not sufficient to permit the removal of any attorney." Harling v. United States, 387 A.2d. 1101, 1105 (D.C. 1978).

Recent decisions have followed Harling. See Stearnes v. Clinton, 780 S.W.2d. 216 (Tex. Crim. App. 1989) (holding that once an attorney-client relationship is established between appointed counsel and defendant, the court cannot arbitrarily remove that attorney); Matter of Richard, 373 N.W.2d. 429 (S.D. 1985); Matter of M.R.S., 400 N.W.2d. 147 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987) (holding that court cannot arbitrarily discharge a criminal defendant's appointed counsel).

In order to be able to remove counsel, courts across the various jurisdictions are consistently required to make a finding that the attorney's participation will jeopardize the fairness or the efficiency of the trial or that some intolerable conflict of interest is present. See, e.g., People v. Green, 248 N.E.2d. 116 (Ill. 1969) (holding that refusal of chosen counsel in lower court was error because no inquiry into "the truth of the circumstances" regarding chosen counsel was made by the court).

Regarding the findings that must be made by the court when removing counsel, the Illinois Appellate Court seemed to promulgate a less rigorous standard in holding that the right to choice of counsel can be limited only when it impedes the effective administration of justice. However, "[a]t what point a defendant's right to select counsel unreasonably interferes with the orderly process of judicial administration, necessarily depends upon the particular facts and circumstances surrounding each case and is a matter which lies within the sound judicial discretion of the trial court." People v. Young, 565 N.E.2d 309, 311 (Ill. App. Ct. 1990).

The California Supreme Court has held that trial courts have only a limited authority to remove a defendant's counsel of choice. Smith v. Superior Court of Los Angeles, 440 P.2d. 65 (Cal. 1968). In Smith, the court held that the judge could not remove the defense counsel on the grounds of his subjective impression of that counsel's competency. The Smith court reasoned that allowing a trial judge such summary authority over choice of counsel would not only violate the essential attorney-client relationship but would also compromise the independence of the bar and thus allow, in many instances, the deprivation of a fair hearing.

Finally, the Supreme Court has held that there is a presumption in favor of a defendant's choice of counsel but that the presumption may be overcome if the evaluation of the facts and circumstances of the case show a conflict, or potential conflict, of interest in the informed judgment of the trial court. Wheat v. U.S., 486 U.S. 153 (1988). Elaborating on the Wheat decision, the Supreme Court of Alabama has found that "the need for fair, efficient, and orderly administration of justice overcomes the right to counsel of choice." Ex Parte Tegner, No. 1950460, 1996 WL 432366 (Ala. 1996).

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