In United States v. Williams, Case No. 18-13890 (Mar. 30, 2022) (Jordan, Jill Pryor, Tjoflat), the Court affirmed the district court because it found that Mr. Williams had forfeited any arguments under which the Court could grant relief on appeal.

Mr. Williams, a sovereign citizen, wanted to represent himself before the district court.  The district court held a Faretta hearing and denied Mr. Williams’s request.  Mr. Williams subsequently pleaded guilty, with the assistance of counsel, and was sentenced to 151 months imprisonment.

Mr. Williams was then assigned a new attorney on appeal.  This attorney moved to withdraw as counsel pursuant to Anders v. California, which the Court denied two times, finding at least two issues of arguable merit: (1) whether, despite later pleading guilty, the Court has discretion to review the denial of a defendant’s request to proceed pro se, which is a potential structural error and, if so, (2) whether the district court erred in denying Williams’s request to proceed pro se because it believed that he did not understand the risks of proceeding pro se due to his illogical legal theories.  The appellate brief failed to meaningfully address whether the guilty plea precluded the Court from addressing the Faretta issue.  As to that issue, the government noted a circuit split, with the 9th Circuit holding that an improper denial of a defendant’s request for self-representation renders any subsequent guilty plea per se involuntary, thereby voiding it; and the 4th, 7th, 8th, and 10th Circuits holding that an improper denial of the right to self-representation does not render a subsequent guilty plea involuntary, so the subsequent guilty plea waives the right to appeal the improper denial.

The Court noted that though the improper denial of the right to self-representation is structural error–which would have required reversal–it could not reach that issue because Mr. Williams’s appellate counsel had failed to address the preliminary issue of what effect Mr. Williams’s guilty plea had on his ability to raise that challenge.  That is, appellate counsel’s failure to raise a challenge to the voluntariness of Mr. Williams’s guilty plea in his initial brief forfeited the issue on appeal.  And, as a result, the Court found that it could not address the circuit split, nor the merits of the Faretta claim.

The Court noted that, while under Campbell, it had the discretion to revive a forfeited issue, it was choosing not to here: “Even assuming that we have the discretion to revive the forfeited issue here, we cannot say that it would be appropriate to exercise our discretion and so decline to raise the voluntariness issue sua sponte.”