Arizonans have a constitutional right to defend themselves against criminal charges, not just at trial but all the way up to the state Supreme Court, the justices ruled Friday.
The high court rejected arguments by the state Attorney General's Office that the right to represent oneself applies only to the actual trial. Lawyers for the state argued that someone who is convicted can appeal only with the help of an attorney.
But Justice Scott Bales, writing for the unanimous court, said that interpretation runs afoul of a state constitutional provision giving individuals the “right to appear and defend in person.” Bales said there is nothing in that section limiting it to trial.
Potentially more significant, Bales said that interpreting the law the way the Attorney General's Office proposes actually would deny the right to appeal to criminal defendants who either could afford their own attorney or were appointed counsel but prefer to pursue the case on their own.
Attorney General Tom Horne said that wasn't what his lawyers were suggesting.
“We weren't arguing that they didn't have the right to an appeal,” he said. “We were arguing that it should be handled by a lawyer so that there will be a rational adversary process.”
But Horne said the court has concluded otherwise.
This case involves Lashuana Coleman, placed on probation in last year following her conviction on a charge of disorderly conduct. She had been represented by appointed counsel.
Coleman eventually filed a notice of appeal on her own, even after her appointed attorney told her that was not an option.
The judges of the state Court of Appeals rejected her appeal, saying she has no constitutional right to represent herself before them. So the Maricopa County Public Defender agreed to argue on her behalf to the Supreme Court that she should be given that right.
Bales acknowledged there is no federal constitutional right to self-representation on appeal. But he and his colleagues said the Arizona Constitution provides broader protections in state court proceedings. Bales said Coleman is entitled to demand that right.
“The state's reading effectively would rewrite the constitution to state, ‘the accused shall have the right to appeal in all cases if represented.’” Bales said that would undermine the whole concept of an appeal which is important to ensure that the correct verdict was reached at trial.
“Nothing suggests the framers intended to limit the right to appeal to represented defendants,” he wrote.
Friday's ruling is not an absolute victory for Coleman.
Bales noted that notices of appeal are supposed to be filed within 30 days; her request came 55 days after the conviction.
But appellate court judges have the power to waive that deadline. So the Supreme Court sent the case back to them to decide whether to let her go ahead anyway.