A divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a competent lawyer when they are offered a chance to plead guilty to get a reduced sentence.
The 5-4 ruling, which split the court along ideological lines yesterday, may have a sweeping impact on the criminal justice system, where 97 percent of federal convictions and 94 percent of those in state court are the result of guilty pleas.
“The right to adequate assistance of counsel cannot be defined or enforced without taking account of the central role plea bargaining plays in securing convictions and determining sentences,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court. He was joined in the majority by the court’s four Democratic appointees, siding with two defendants who said they received bad legal advice.
Justice Antonin Scalia took the unusual step of describing his dissenting opinions from the bench for emphasis. He said the majority “opens a whole new field of constitutionalized criminal procedure: the field of plea-bargaining law.”
The ruling will probably mean “much greater judicial supervision” of the plea process, said Daniel Meron, a Washington lawyer at Latham & Watkins LLP who filed a brief backing the defendants on behalf of New York University School of Law’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law.
“I think what you’re going to see is an increasing number of states requiring judges to ensure at the front end that plea offers are conveyed in open court to the defendant and that the defendant understands” the offer, Meron said. He said the upshot may be greater uniformity.
The justices sided with two men who say they received inadequate legal advice. One, Galin E. Frye of Missouri, said his lawyer never told him of a plea offer that included a sentence of 90 days or less for driving with a revoked license after three previous offenses. He went to trial and was sentenced to three years in prison.
The second man, Anthony Cooper, was accused of shooting a woman in Michigan in her buttock, hip and abdomen and turned down a plea offer that might have meant a maximum sentence of seven years and one month. Cooper says his lawyer convinced him he couldn’t be convicted of assault with intent to murder because the victim was shot below the waist. He was convicted and sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison.
The court sent both cases back to the lower-court level to determine what impact the ruling will have on the sentences.
Kennedy rejected contentions that the ruling will “open the floodgates” to challenges to convictions.
“Courts have recognized claims of this sort for over 30 years,” he said, referring to allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel. “And yet there is no indication that the system is overwhelmed by these types of suits or that defendants are receiving windfalls.”
Scalia said the rulings “almost seem designed to sow confusion” and leave a slew of unanswered questions. “The court leaves all this to be worked out in further litigation, which you can be sure there will be plenty of,” he said.
The cases are Lafler v. Cooper, 10-209, and Missouri v. Frye, 10-444.