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Supreme Court Expands Plea Bargain Rights of Criminal Defendants

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by Justin Shubow
Posted March 22, 2012, 8:30 AM

In pair of 5-4 decisions yesteday, the Supreme Court vastly expanded judicial oversight of the criminal justice system.  The Washington Post reports:

A divided Supreme Court ruled for the first time Wednesday that the guarantee of effective legal representation applies to plea bargain agreements, significantly expanding the constitutional rights of defendants as they move through the criminal justice system.

In a pair of cases decided by 5 to 4 votes, the court opened a new avenue for defendants to challenge their sentences on grounds that their attorneys gave them faulty advice, lawyers on both sides of the issue said. The vast majority of criminal cases end with a guilty plea rather than a trial, and the ruling could affect thousands of cases.

“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.” . . .

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.”

He added in a written dissent, “Today, however, the Supreme Court of the United States elevates plea bargaining from a necessary evil to a constitutional entitlement.”

The court’s conservatives — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — voted with Scalia.

For some of the Federalist Society's previous coverage of the issue of plea bargaining, see Carter K.D. Guice's white paper "Federal Plea Agreements: The Engine That Drives the Prosecution of Increasingly Complex Crimes."

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