The Supreme Court used a Hollywood example — the bumbling attorney in "My Cousin Vinny" — in debating a case Tuesday about an accused man's right to pick his own lawyer.
In the 1992 movie, Alabama authorities mistakenly arrest two New York students for a convenience store murder, and a brash family lawyer played by Joe Pesci defends them in his very first trial.
In the real case argued before the Supreme Court Tuesday, an accused drug dealer wanted an award-winning out-of-state lawyer to defend him on charges in Missouri, but the trial judge improperly refused to allow it.
Nine out of 10 federal criminal defendants are indigent and represented by court-appointed lawyers, the justices were told. But when someone can afford a lawyer, the court has held that they have a right to make their own choice.
The high court is deciding now whether a person is automatically entitled to a new trial if that choice is wrongly blocked.
Justice Antonin Scalia said "your freedom's at stake, you should be able to use all your money" on the best lawyer, or at least one you trust.
"You're entitled to the lawyer you want," Scalia said.
After the judge refused to let California lawyer Joseph Low represent Cuauhtemoc Gonzalez-Lopez in Missouri, the defendant used a less-experienced local lawyer and was convicted of conspiracy to sell marijuana.
Low attended the trial anyway, but was forced to sit in the spectator section with a court-assigned marshal separating him from his would-be client.
An appeals court overturned the conviction on grounds that the defendant's constitutional right to an attorney was violated.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Gonzalez-Lopez was "ready, willing and able" to pay for Low but was "instead stuck with ... the junior counsel." It was the local attorney's first federal criminal trial.
Not all members of the court appeared ready to embrace the proposition that convictions should always be overturned in those cases.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said he was "concerned with the consequences" of such a decision.
Chief Justice John Roberts said that it may turn out that a trial was still fair, even with a person's second or third choice of a lawyer.
"It's not like he wants a Rolls-Royce and gets a Yugo," said Roberts.
Justice Samuel Alito said that an accused criminal might ask for a family member — who specializes in real estate law — to try to do the very different job of criminal defense work.
"What about the real case of 'My Uncle Vinny?"' asked Scalia, a reference to the Pesci movie, which prompted laughs from other justices and court spectators.
Jeffrey Fisher, who argued for Gonzalez-Lopez at the high court, replied that judges "proceed at peril" when they tell a defendant that he cannot decide what's best for himself.
Bush administration lawyer Michael Dreeben urged justices to consider the cost to taxpayers for new trials without actual proof that a defendant did not receive a fair trial.
The administration acknowledged that the judge in Missouri should not have barred Low from the case. One of the judge's reasons was that Low allegedly tried to sign up a separate defendant as a client even though the defendant already had a lawyer.
The case is United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 05-352.