In a 5-3 decision in Luis v. United States on Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court forbade the government from seizing legitimate funds defendants could use to hire a lawyer of their choice. Along the way, the justices came close to asking a more troubling question: Does America’s underfunded public-defender system meet the Sixth Amendment’s standards for adequate legal counsel?
The case itself had nothing to do with public defenders, at least on the surface. Sila Luis, who brought the appeal before the Court, was indicted for federal health-care fraud to the tune of $45 million in 2012. Luis had $2 million in assets when a federal grand jury indicted her; she said she hoped to use the funds to pay for her legal defense.
But prosecutors sought a court order barring her from using any of her funds—even those wholly unconnected to the crime—in hopes of acquiring them after conviction for restitution and possible criminal penalties. Luis argued that seizing those untainted funds would violate her Sixth Amendment right to seek assistance of counsel of her choice. Lower courts disagreed, so she appealed the order to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case last year.
Five justices agreed on the ruling itself: The Sixth Amendment forbids the government from seizing untainted assets before trial when defendants need those assets to hire lawyers of their choice. Four of them, led by Justice Stephen Breyer, ruled the right to counsel of choice outweighed the government’s interest in restitution and fines. Justice Clarence Thomas supported the result but saw a clear command from the Sixth Amendment instead of a balancing act.