Document Type


Publication Title

Columbia Law Review



Publication Date



Conflict of interest, Wheat v. United States, disqualification, client autonomy


Although raised frequently in the lower courts, the question of what the trial judge's role is in conflict-of-interest cases has, for nearly half a century, lurked in the background of the Supreme Court's decisions concerning the scope of a criminal defendant's right to the undivided loyalty of his attorney. Last term, as its conflict-of-interest jurisprudence reached middle age, the Court had the opportunity to articulate its views on that question. In Wheat v. United States, the Court held that a trial judge has discretion to disqualify defense counsel, even over the defendant's objection, if a serious possibility for a conflict of interest exists. The Court's reflections on the trial judge's role in conflict-of-interest cases are important, not only because they guide the conduct of trial judges in a significant number of criminal trials, but also because they illuminate other aspects of the Court's conception of the adversary process. The Court's efforts to define the trial judge's role are colored by its views of at least five subsidiary issues: (1) the ethical rules concerning conflicts of interest; (2) the extent to which defense attorneys can be trusted to avoid ethical violations; (3) the nature of the relationship between defense attorneys and their clients and the importance of limiting judicial intrusion into that relationship; (4) the importance of the autonomy of the criminal accused; and (5) the institutional interests of the judiciary in criminal cases. This Article examines Wheat v. United States in light of the Supreme Court's earlier conflict-of-interest cases in an effort to provide greater guidance to trial judges. As background, Part I briefly discusses the relevant Supreme Court decisions, beginning in 1942 and culminating last year with Wheat. Part II demonstrates the inadequacy of the Court's reasoning in Wheat. It argues that Wheat ignores the more sophisticated aspects of the Court's earlier jurisprudence, including the Court's understanding of the relative importance of client autonomy and the sanctity of the attorney-client relationship, while building on both a misunderstanding of the prevailing standards of professional responsibility and an unfair assumption that defense lawyers will not comply with those standards. Thus, Part II views Wheat not as a sign of maturation, but as a step backward in the Court's conception of the adversary process. Finally, Part III addresses the trial judge's need for further guidance in cases in which defense counsel has a potential conflict of interest, and proposes a framework for the trial judge's exercise of discretion in such cases.