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Nix v. Whiteside

A Unanimous Decision

However, Warden Crispus Nix and the Iowa correctional system petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, maintaining that Whiteside received a fair trial and effective legal counsel and was convicted through a fair legal process. The Court set out on 5 November 1985 to determine if Robinson's conduct violated Whiteside's Sixth Amendment right to fair and effective legal representation. The Court examined the decision in Strickland v. Washington (1984) where it laid down a number guidelines for judging the appropriateness of defense attorney conduct for cases of alleged Sixth Amendment rights violations. Writing for the majority, Justice Burger noted that the Court called for defense attorneys' "duty of loyalty" and "overarching duty to advocate the defendant's cause" but not for attorneys to aid in testifying falsely or any activity that obstructs the truth.

Furthermore, the American Bar Association's Code of Ethics also prohibits such conduct, demanding that the attorney "must . . . observe and advise his client to observe the statute law." Although attorneys maintain a policy of confidentiality with their clients under the American Bar Association, they cannot uphold this policy when clients inform them of their intentions to commit a crime, including presenting perjured testimony. The Iowa Code of Professional Responsibility for Lawyers also allows an exception to attorney/client confidentiality for cases where clients have committed or announce their intentions to commit crimes. Moreover, the Iowa code not only gives attorneys the option of revealing that their clients plan to commit perjury, it requires that they reveal this information. Justice Burger also pointed out that Robinson could have faced felony charges and disbarment for aiding in Whiteside's false testimony, if he passively allowed Whiteside to offer it.

Given these standards of the American Bar Association and the state of Iowa, the Court concluded that Robinson's conduct clearly remained consistent with commonly held ethical practices of lawyers and that his conduct in no way violated Whiteside's right to effective counsel. The Court argued that Robinson's conduct did not deprive Whiteside of due process of law or effective counsel as the court of appeals maintained. Instead, the Court held that at most Robinson deprived Whiteside of an opportunity to present perjured testimony, but nothing to undermine Whiteside's argument that he believed Love owned a gun and was reaching for one when the stabbing occurred. The Court reiterated that no one has a constitutional right to testify falsely and that no Supreme Court case set a precedent for such a right or expectation.

Although all the justices agreed that Whiteside failed to demonstrate a constitutional violation or an ethical violation by Robinson under Strickland v. Washington, some disagreed with the Court's stance on ethical conduct by lawyers. Justice Brennan argued that "the Court cannot tell the states or the lawyers in the states how to behave in their courts, unless and until federal rights are violated." Justice Blackmun, joined by Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens also balked at the Court's adoption of a code of ethics for lawyers, maintaining that the states have that responsibility, not the federal government.

Whiteside's attorney treated Whiteside's proposed perjury in accord with professional standards, and since Whiteside's truthful testimony could not have prejudiced the result of his trial, the Court of Appeals was in error to direct the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus and must be reversed.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Nix v. Whiteside - Significance, Overview, Whiteside's Crime And Defense, A Unanimous Decision, Federal District Court