I returned from vacation pleased to find in my in basket at the office a copy of Ryan C. Tuck’s article from the Georgia Law Review on the confusing state of the law as it relates to ineffective assistance of counsel in Georgia. The article is titled “Ineffective-Assistance-of-Counsel Blues: Navigating the Muddy Waters of Georgia Law After 2010 State Supreme Court Decisions.” This article is as good as its title is clever. The article centers on where the law in Georgia is after Garland and Moody.

And the news is not particularly good. And why am I excited about a law review article on a case I lost (sort of) and that demonstrates some issues with how we handle IAC claims in Georgia?

The reason is that maybe things will change. The way we do things in Georgia makes it tough to be a criminal appellate lawyer, disincentives trial lawyers from preserving issues for appeal, and needlessly separates the appeal from the trial in a way that interferes with attorney-client relationships and in a way that probably hurts the client in the long run. And this article give me some hope that the legislature will move Georgia to a system of handling IAC claims more akin to the majority rule.

Mr. Tuck picks up in a familiar place to me. Jim Bonner’s article in the Appellate Review, the Georgia Appellate Practice Section’s Newsletter covered some of the same ground.

What’s Wrong Now?

Under Georgia law, new counsel must raise ineffective assistance of counsel at the earliest possible moment, or he waives it. As claims go, IAC not really good. It’s rarely successful. I have litigated it more times than I can remember, and it’s worked on appeal exactly one time (it’s worked a few more times at the trial level, but generally with a wink and a nod as part of negotiations).

The problem is that clients think that it will work for them, and they pressure new counsel to raise it. There are many reasons why it should rarely be raised. For one, there rarely is a good claim. Secondly, it has a way of becoming the focus of the appeal. Third, even when it doesn’t it can be a big distraction from other real issues of merit. Fourth, analysis under the second prong of Stickland, invites trial courts to weigh in on how strong the evidence was against the defendant at trial. Such careful scrutiny of how good the State’s case was can have a spillover effect to other issues in the case making it that much easier to proclaim that other errors were harmless.

Pressures from the client and systemic pressures (raise it or waive it) can create a real conflict with the lawyer’s ethical obligations not to raise frivolous claims under Rule 3.1 of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct. To quote Mr. Tuck’s article,

By creating pressures for new appellate counsel to raise IAC claims against trial counsel, critics contend that Georgia’s approach contravenes this warning from Strickland [that there will be two trials. In the first, the defendant is tried. In the second, the lawyer is, as Mr. Tuck puts it “tried for IAC.”] and institutionalizes a level of antagonism between defendants and their attorneys that can be damaging to overall standards of representation. As one critic asserted, “[i]t causes hell for attorney-client relations if both know from the beginning that they will end up on opposite sides.

And from my experience, this issue marks the place where things can go bad between the attorney and the client. I don’t raise IAC unless I see at least a colorable issue and if it won’t hurt other claims by serving as a distraction and if the second prong won’t spill over into the harm analysis of other issues.

Where Should We Go From Here?

We should require that IAC claims be held until collateral proceedings and take them out of the direct appeal except in the rare case when it can be resolved from the record itself. And, the failure to raise it should not act as a waiver of the issue. It would better the system and make it easier to practice criminal appellate law. And, above all, it would protect the clients from going for a low percentage issue at the cost of other issues of merit, which provide a better chance of success even if they don’t quite understand those issues.