Self-representation and closing argument

United States v. Bell, No. 13-30163 (9th Cir. Oct. 22, 2014). 

Here’s an interesting case about the limits of the right to self-representation. 

Raymond Bell was charged with filing false tax returns and helping others do so. At trial, Bell insisted on representing on himself—as he has a Sixth Amendment right to do. (Bell, to defend himself, mainly raised sovereign citizen nonsense.) 

At the close of trial, the government gave a closing argument. The district court didn’t tell Bell he had a right to give a closing argument, and Bell didn’t volunteer one on his own. The jury came back with a conviction, and Bell was sentenced to about eight years in a prison run by a government whose sovereignty he apparently doesn’t recognize. 

The question the Ninth Circuit answers is whether Bell’s Sixth Amendment rights were violated by the district court’s failure to tell Bell he could give a closing argument. The court, speaking through Judge Gould (no relation), says that although denying a request for closing argument violates the Sixth Amendment, a simple omission to tell a defendant he can make a closing argument doesn’t violate the Constitution. Thus the conviction is affirmed.

Judge Hawkins concurs in the judgment, saying that there was no error in this case, but adding that the court didn’t need to reach the larger question of whether a defendant has to be affirmatively advised of the right to closing argument. But perhaps the panel is thinking that—given the increasing rarity of trials—there’s no guarantee the issue will come back before the Ninth Circuit anytime soon: so why not address the issue now?