“You are saying it was unfair to have a fair trial?”
That was a fair question put by Justice Kennedy at oral argument today. The issue is whether a criminal defendant can be deprived of the effective assistance of counsel (for Sixth Amendment purposes) when a lawyer screwup prevents him from taking a plea deal.
The issue was presented in two companion cases, Lafler v Cooper and Missouri v. Frye. In Lafler, defense counsel gave bad advice, so that the defendant rejected a plea offer and went to trial instead. In Frye, the defendant did take a plea, but an earlier more favorable offer had never been conveyed.
Everyone accepts as given that the lawyers in these cases screwed up big time. The issue is only whether the screwups were so deficient as to rise to a constitutional violation.
Defendants do not have a right to a plea bargain, of course. The Supreme Court has spoken pretty firmly on that one. The plea bargain is, however, almost universally lauded — it allows defendants to cut their losses, prosecutors and courts to free up resources, and gives the system a chance to impose a “more fair” penalty than that which the legislature would otherwise have imposed. Plea bargains are wonderful. But there is no constitutional right to them.
Given that, the layman might be forgiven for scratching his head and wondering why these two cases were granted cert in the first place. (Laymen do that, you know.) There was no constitutional right being deprived, and there’s no doubt about the reliability of the conviction, so how could there possibly be ineffective assistance here?
That’s pretty much what the government argues — that there’s no prejudice, so there’s no Strickland problem. Being convicted after a fair trial is not prejudicial. Voluntarily taking a guilty plea is not prejudicial. The mere fact that a less harsh sentence could have been gotten with a better lawyer may perhaps be a pity, but it is not prejudicial. A do-over ought to be out of the question.
But Padilla held that ineffective assistance applies to the plea bargaining stage, that failure to advise as to immigration consequences can require just such a do-over. So the defendants argue that what was prejudiced was the outcome of the plea process itself, and not the outcome of the case. The issue for them is not whether the defendant would have been convicted or not, but whether ineffective assistance deprived them of the opportunity to get a better deal.
Both defendants argue that the correct fix would be to give them a chance to accept the earlier offer that, but for their lawyers’ failing, they would have accepted in the first place.
There is a fear that, if the defendants win, there will be a rash of appeals claiming that prior plea offers hadn’t been conveyed, or had been rejected for stupid reasons. Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of a chance to cut their 10-year sentence down to the 2-year offer that was originally rejected? How easy is it to claim that a lawyer told you something stupid, or didn’t tell you anything at all, especially as those discussions aren’t typically recorded or transcribed — it’s a he-said-she-said at worst, and who knows what lawyers might not be persuaded to bend the truth and swear out an affidavit substantiating the defendant’s claim?
One might also fear that, given this safety valve, defendants would be more likely to take cases all the way to trial, on the off chance that they win, knowing that if all else fails they can just go back to their saved game from the plea levels. That would sort of undermine the courts’ stake in plea bargaining, clogging the courts rather than freeing them up.
These are policy issues that may well be persuasive to the justices. Not law issues, so much as practicalities.
But what did the justices actually say today? That might give a (more…)