Supreme Court: Plea Bargain Advice That Is Absurdly Bad Violates The Constitution

WASHINGTON -- Defendants who receive deficient or absurdly bad plea bargaining advice from their lawyers have had their constitutional rights violated and may have their sentences thrown out, the Supreme Court ruled in a pair of cases on Wednesday.

In one case, prosecutors charged Anthony Cooper with assault with intent to murder for shooting a fleeing woman in the buttocks and thigh. Cooper’s lawyer, believing for no sound reason that the prosecutors could not prove intent to murder because Cooper did not shoot the woman above the waist, advised him to reject a plea deal and go to trial. In the other case, Galin Frye pleaded guilty without knowing that his lawyer had let an earlier and more favorable plea deal expire.

Both men ended up with stiffer sentences than they would have received had their lawyers not failed them while plea bargaining, and each asked the Supreme Court to invalidate his sentence under the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of effective assistance of counsel.

The Court, by a vote of 5-4 in both cases, accepted the defendants’ arguments. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote on behalf of himself and his four liberal colleagues, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

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.

Justice Antonin Scalia summarized his dissent from the bench, ridiculing the majority for "its newly discovered constitutional right" and calling the remedies discussed in the Lafler decision "nothing short of extraordinary."

"Nowhere in our constitutional jurisprudence have we ever suggested that the remedy for an unconstitutional conviction could be entirely subject to a trial judge's discretion or that the remedy could ever be no remedy at all," said Scalia.

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