When Can I Fire My Lawyer?

Author: Andrew Fernandez, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

The Sixth Amendment of the United State Constitution protects a criminal defendant’s right to counsel. A significant component of this fundamental right is the ability of a defendant to choose their own counsel if they can afford to do so.[1] A criminal defendant is denied the right to choose counsel if they are not provided the opportunity to choose their own counsel.[2] The court must grant a substitution of counsel must if the substitution does not interfere with the “fair, orderly, and effective administration of the courts.”[3] In many cases, if a criminal defendant cannot afford a lawyer, a criminal defendant will be provided counsel pursuant to the Sixth Amendment.[4] However, under these circumstances, a criminal defendant does not have the right a specific lawyer, nor may a defendant fire the appointed attorney absent good cause.[5] Good cause can constitute “a fundamental problem, ‘such as a conflict of interest, a complete breakdown in communication or an irreconcilable conflict which leads to an apparently unjust verdict.’”[6] The circuit courts are split on whether the Constitution protects a right for a defendant to fire counsel if the defendant seeks to substitute court-appointed counsel in place of their own. The Eleventh Circuit in U.S. v. Jimenez held that a defendant does not need to demonstrate good cause in order to replace their attorney with a court-appointed attorney.[7] Alternatively, the First Circuit in United States v. Santana argued the defendant must show good cause in order to substitute their retained lawyer for a court-appointed lawyer.[8] The Eleventh Circuit is the better opinion because it protects the fundamental right of the ability to choose one’s counsel protected by the Sixth Amendment, is supported by case law, and helps to ensure criminal defendants make the best choice for their well-being.

United States v. Mota-Santana

In MotaSantana, the defendant was indicted for conspiracy to import drugs into the United States over a two year period.[9] After his indictment, the defendant filed a pro se motion requesting appointed counsel claiming he could no longer afford the counsel he retained, that the retained counsel ignored the defendant’s various attempts to contact counsel, that  retained counsel deceived the defendant into signing a plea agreement, and that all confidence had been lost in retained counsel.[10] The Eleventh Circuit heard the case on appeal after the district court denied the motion.[11] The Eleventh Circuit ruled that while a defendant may usually replace counsel at one’s own discretion, the court in this case must apply the analysis used to determine if the defendant should receive appointed counsel because the defendant sought court appointed counsel.[12] Additionally, the Eleventh Circuit, in order to determine if there was good cause to fire the retained attorney, analyzed how timeliness of  the motion,  the adequacy of the district court’s review of the complaint, and whether there was a breakdown in communication that prevented an adequate defense.[13] The Court held there was no good cause to fire the attorney after determining that the attorney intervened at a critical plea hearing, there was no evidence of deception on the part of the attorney, and the attorney had made several visits to the defendant while representing him.[14]

United States v. Jimenez-Antunez

In Jimenez-Antunez, the defendant was indicted for drug distribution.[15] After initially retaining counsel, the defendant asked his lawyer to withdraw.[16] The defendant stated to the court that he felt his counsel pressured him into pleading guilty, the attorney had not visited the client in six months, and the lawyer failed to return the calls of the defendant’s family members.[17] The district court denied the motion to withdraw stating that he had been afforded adequate counsel.[18] The district court reasoned there was no evidence of coercion into his guilty plea and the attorney must have visited the defendant because the attorney stated he reviewed the plea agreement with the defendant.[19] The court of appeals reversed, arguing the district court had applied the wrong analysis.[20] According to the court, a defendant utilizes his right to choose one’s own counsel when he fires his retained counsel.[21] It does not matter who the defendant attempts to hire after firing their retained attorney.[22] The district court cannot oblige a defendant to show good cause to dismiss his retained counsel because the right to dismiss retained counsel is not altered by a defendant’s decision to select appointed counsel.[23] The court cited several decisions of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in support of its decision.[24]

Why the Right to Choose Counsel is a Crucial Component of the Sixth Amendment

The ability to choose one’s own counsel is a critical part of the Sixth Amendment. The Eleventh Circuit’s decision is more consistent with treating the right to counsel as a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution. Our nation has allowed defendants to make judgement calls when determining who they want to represent them. Therefore, giving defendants the ability to fire their retained attorneys without cause allows the defendant to maximize their Sixth Amendment right to hire and fire retained counsel. Forcing a good cause requirement on a criminal defendant would go against our national tradition of allowing defendants to choose their own representation.

The most compelling argument in requiring good cause to fire one’s attorney in order to substitute a court-appointed lawyer is allowing defendants to make substitutions will lead to undue delay and strain in the courts. The federal court system is overburdened as is and should not be strangled by these cases, particularly when there seems to be a lack of good cause for the delay. However, there already is protection against this right becoming a strain on the federal court system. Courts do have the discretion to deny requests to withdraw if the court feels it would create undue delay and taxing of resources. However, this should not trump the fundamental right of Americans to seek their own counsel, particularly when there is already protection in place to preserve the court’s efficiency.

Second, the Eleventh Circuit decision is more sound then then the First Circuit’s decision because it is better supported by case law. The Eleventh Circuit utilizes decisions by the Ninth Circuit to support its holding that a defendant may fire his own counsel for any reason even if the replacement is a court appointed lawyer.[25] The Eleventh Circuit further supports this logic by citing to cases in state court to support its decision. In contrast, the First Circuit decision lacks any support for its holding that good cause is required when a defendant attempts to replace his retained lawyer for an appointed lawyer. Critically, the First Circuit’s argument that the analysis of whether the court should allow the withdrawal of the attorney and whether the defendant should be appointed counsel must merge is unsupported by any case law.  The First Circuit should have followed the approach of building off of precedent utilized by the Ninth and Eleventh Circuits as opposed to charting its own direction without the support of case law.

Finally, the Eleventh Circuit decision ensures criminal defendants will be able to make the best decisions possible for their own well-being. Few experiences are more intimidating in life then a criminal prosecution. The vast majority of citizens are unfamiliar with criminal law and the stakes often include imprisonment, loss of reputation, limited employment opportunities, and even death. Ensuring the right to fire retained counsel ensures defendants possess the necessary trust to make legal decision.  Criminal defendants must be able to trust their representation with their liberty and their lives. If the defendant feels they cannot trust their counsel or feel the lawyer does not have their best interests at heart, the attorney can become another adversary for the defendant to navigate as opposed to a trusted confidante. This could compromise the decision making of the defendant if the defendant feels their interests are not being protected. The ability to terminate the relationship is essential for defendants to make the best possible decision on their own behalf.


The Eleventh Circuit is the stronger opinion because it better protects the fundamental right to counsel, is better supported by case law, and allows clients to make better decision on their own behalf. Requiring good cause is a misunderstanding of the importance of allowing defendants to choose their own representation. The opportunity to choose one’s own counsel must be protected. The First Circuit decision is also unsupported by case law, in contrast to the Eleventh Circuit. Finally, justice is best ensured by allowing criminal defendants to fire retained counsel for any reason because it ensures defendants are working with someone they can trust.  Therefore, the Eleventh Circuit decision should be applied by other circuits as opposed to the First Circuit decision because it better protects the Sixth Amendment right to choose counsel.

[1] U.S. v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 548 U.S. 140, 144 (2006).

[2] Id. at 148.

[3] U.S. v. Jimenez, 820 F. 3d 1267, 1270-1271 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting U.S. v. Koblitz, 803 F. 2d. at 1523, 1528).

[4] See Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 343-345 (1963).

[5] Thomas v. Wainwright, 767 F.2d 738, 742 (11th Circuit Ct. App. 1985).

[6] U.S. v. Garey, 540 F.3d 1253, 1263 (11th Cir. 2008) (quoting U.S. v. Young, 482 F.2d 993, 995 (5th Cir. 1973)).

[7] See Jimenez, 820 F. 3d at 1272-1273.

[8] See U.S. v. Santana, 391 F.3d 42, 47 (1st Cir. 2004).

[9] Id. at 43-44

[10] Id. at 45.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 47.

[13] Id.

[14] Santana, 391 F.3d at 47-48.

[15] Jimenez, 820 F.3d at 1269.

[16] Id. at 1269-1270.

[17] Id. at 1270.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 1271.

[21] Jimenez, 820 F.3d at 1269.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id. at 1271-1272. See, e.g., U.S. v. Brown, 785 F.3d 1337, 1344 (9th Cir. 2015); U.S. v. Rivera-Corona, 618 F.3d 976, 979-981 (9th Cir. 2010).

[25] United States v. Brown, 785 F.3d 1337, 1344 (9th Cir. 2015).

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