The Supreme Court issued two opinions yesterday that expanded constitutional protections of effective representation to defendants in criminal plea bargains. The rulings in Missouri v. Frye and Lafler v. Cooper are available in Adobe .pdf format.
Here are case summaries prepared by Bertha Astorga for the ABA Criminal Justice Section:
Missouri v. Frye (5-4, Opinion by Justice Kennedy, on March 21, 2012)
Summary: In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Court vacated the decision of the Missouri Court of Appeals (Western District) and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. The Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel extends to consideration of plea offers that lapse or are rejected and that right applies to “all ‘critical’ stages of criminal proceedings.” Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Thomas and Justice Alito.
Lafler v. Cooper (5-4, Opinion by Justice Kennedy, on March 21, 2012)
Summary: In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Court vacated the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. The Court held that where counsel’s ineffective advice led to an offer’s rejection, and where the prejudice alleged is having to stand trial, a defendant must show that but for the ineffective advice, there is a reasonable probability that the plea offer would have been presented to the court, that the court would have accepted its terms, and that the conviction or sentence, or both, under the offer’s terms would have been less severe than under the actual judgment and sentence imposed. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, which Justice Thomas joined, and which Chief Justice Roberts joined as to all but Part IV. Justice Alito filed a separate dissenting opinion.
"Justices’ Ruling Expands Rights of Accused in Plea Bargains," is Adam Liptak's report for today's New York Times.
Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to effective lawyers during plea negotiations, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in a pair of 5-to-4 decisions that vastly expanded judges’ supervision of the criminal justice system.
The decisions mean that what used to be informal and unregulated deal making is now subject to new constraints when bad legal advice leads defendants to reject favorable plea offers.
“Criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. “The right to adequate assistance of counsel cannot be defined or enforced without taking account of the central role plea bargaining takes in securing convictions and determining sentences.”
Justice Kennedy, who more often joins the court’s conservative wing in ideologically divided cases, was in this case in a coalition with the court’s four more liberal members. That alignment has sometimes arisen in recent years in cases that seemed to offend Justice Kennedy’s sense of fair play.
The consequences of the two decisions are hard to predict because, as Justice Antonin Scalia said in a pair of dissents he summarized from the bench, “the court leaves all of this to be worked out in further litigation, which you can be sure there will be plenty of.”
Claims of ineffective assistance at trial are commonplace even though trials take place under a judge’s watchful eye. Challenges to plea agreements based on misconduct by defense lawyers will presumably be common as well, given how many more convictions follow guilty pleas and the fluid nature of plea negotiations.
Reuters posts, "Supreme Court extends effective lawyer right to plea deals," by James Vicini.
Splitting by a 5-4 vote, with moderate conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the court's four liberals in two cases, the majority held that the right to effective counsel applied to informal plea bargain negotiations that take place between criminal defendants and prosecutors.
In the second ruling, the majority held a defendant must show "a reasonable probability" the plea offer would have been accepted by the judge when a lawyer's bad advice caused the defendant to reject the plea bargain and then stand trial.
The pair of rulings in cases from Missouri and Michigan could allow convicted criminals to seek to reopen their cases after they passed up favorable plea bargains because of ineffective assistance of their lawyers.
In both cases, the criminals said they had been denied their constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel because of mistakes by their attorneys during plea negotiations. The majority agreed.
The rulings could have broad impact as about 95 percent of all criminal cases nationwide are resolved through a plea agreement, not a trial.
Kennedy in one of the opinions said that a defense counsel as a general rule has a duty to communicate to the client formal prosecution offers of a plea deal on terms and conditions that may be favorable to the accused.
To show harm when a plea offer has lapsed or been rejected because of a lawyer's bad performance, Kennedy said defendants must show they probably would have accepted the more favorable plea offer if they had received effective legal advice and that the plea deal would have been accepted in court.
"Supreme Court expands plea bargain rights of criminal defendants," by Robert Barnes in the Washington Post.
“The reality is that plea bargains have become so central to the administration of the criminal justice system that defense counsel have responsibilities . . . that must be met to render the adequate assistance of counsel that the Sixth Amendment requires,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote. He was joined by the court’s liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
That is the case, the majority said, even if the defendant is unquestionably guilty or has received a fair trial after turning down a plea bargain.
Since more than nine in 10 cases involve a plea rather than trial, the decision will mean greater constitutional scrutiny of the negotiations central to almost every prosecution.
“It seems to me the court has created a new body of constitutional law,” said Connecticut Assistant State’s Attorney Michael J. Proto, who wrote a brief for 27 states urging the court not to extend the constitutional guarantee to plea bargains. “There are a lot of unanswered questions, and it is going to spawn a lot of litigation.”
Margaret Colgate Love, who helped write an American Bar Association brief that advocated for the court’s action, agreed about its impact.
“What makes these cases so important is the Supreme Court’s full-on recognition of the centrality of plea bargaining in the modern criminal justice system and its extension of constitutional discipline to the outcome of the plea process,” she said.
The decisions prompted a scathing rebuttal from Justice Antonin Scalia, delivered from the bench to signal his displeasure.
Scalia called the rulings “absurd” and said the majority had twisted the constitutional right to ensure defendants get a fair trial into one in which they have a chance “to escape a fair trial and get less punishment than they deserve.”
"Supreme Court expands defendant's rights in plea deals," is David G. Savage's Los Angeles Times report.
Until now, the vast majority of the high court's decisions on the constitutional rights of criminal defendants had involved trials. Since plea deals are part of the daily routine in courthouses across the nation, expanding the Constitution's reach into that arena could affect a large number of cases. But legal experts, like the justices themselves, differed on the precise impact.
"These are big and important decisions," said Orin Kerr, a criminal law expert at George Washington University. "Plea negotiations have been mostly unregulated, and as a result, they have been informal. That will have to change, at least at the margins."
Others said the justices did not want to second-guess routine plea deals, only those in which a lawyer's blunder or clearly bad advice had caused his client serious damage.
Stanford law professor Jeffrey Fisher said the high court's decision was significant because it put the "imprimatur of the Supreme Court" on the rule that defendants have a right to competent legal advice during negotiations over a plea deal. That position "is basically consistent with the predominant view in the lower courts over the past several years," he said, but had not previously been declared a nationwide rule by the highest court.
Since the 1980s, the court has said defendants have a right to "effective assistance of counsel," and this guidance is crucial to protecting the right to a fair trial.
On Wednesday, Kennedy joined with the court's four liberals — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor — and made clear for the first time that a defendant's right to a competent lawyer extends to decisions to accept or reject a plea offer from prosecutors.
Both cases involved men who were sent to prison for lengthy terms — one for assault and the other for drunk driving — who could have had much lighter sentences but for their lawyers' mistakes.
"Dissenting in Two Decisions, Scalia Hits New ‘Constitutional Right to Effective Plea Bargainers’," at the ABA Journal, written by Debra Cassens Weiss.
Defendants who reject or pass up plea bargains because their lawyers provided ineffective assistance of counsel may have their subsequent, harsher sentences overturned, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in two cases.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote both opinions for a five-justice majority. One case involved a lawyer who never communicated a plea offer to his client, and the other involved a lawyer who advised the client to reject a favorable plea based on an incorrect interpretation of the law.
Justice Antonin Scalia read aloud from his dissents, in which he criticized the new “constitutional right to effective plea-bargainers” and the majority’s “quite absurd” remedies. The court “opens a whole new boutique of constitutional jurisprudence (‘plea-bargaining law’) without even specifying the remedies the boutique offers,” he complained.
In previous opinions, the court had ruled that the right to effective counsel applies to the acceptance of plea offers and guilty pleas. The two cases decided by the Supreme Court on Wednesday involved defendants who didn't take plea deals.
"Supreme Court: Plea Bargain Advice That Is Absurdly Bad Violates The Constitution," by Mike Sacks at Huffington Post.
In Missouri v. Frye, the justices held that the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial extends to pre-trial activities such as plea bargains. "This Court now holds that, as a general rule, defense counsel has the duty to communicate formal offers from the prosecution to accept a plea on terms and conditions that may be favorable to the accused."
In Lafler v. Cooper, in which there was actually a trial, the same justices explained that defendants are entitled to a remedy when they can show that there is a reasonable probability they would have accepted the plea bargain had they not received bad advice from their lawyer and that the trial court would have accepted the guilty plea. In such cases, the trial court would then have the discretion to replace the stiffer sentence with the plea agreement, to throw out part of the conviction and re-sentence accordingly, or leave the original sentence in place.
Jordan Smith posts, "Supremes Rule for Defendants," at the Austin Chronicle.
Related posts are in the ineffective assistance of counsel index.