Last week the Supreme Court issued a pair of decisions that clarifies that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to effective counsel during plea negotiations and vastly expands judges’ supervision of the criminal justice system.
The impact of the decisions means that the plea bargain process, something that has traditionally been treated as informal and was unregulated, is now subject to constitutional review. That means criminal defendants now have access to remedies when bad legal advice leads defendants to reject favorable plea offers.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, underscored the pragmatic approach driving the decision, at least in part. “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 Antonin Scalia lead the dissent with a chorus of concerns regarding the additional litigation extending constitutional rights to criminal defendants in the plea bargain stage would bring.
In the context of criminal trials, the Supreme Court has made it clear that defendants were entitled to new trials if they could show the incompetence of their attorneys would probably affect the outcome of their case. Lawyers are also required under the Sixth Amendment to offer competent advice in urging defendants to give up their right to trial by accepting a guilty plea. These decisions address the more difficult question of what should be done in cases where a lawyer’s incompetence caused the client to reject a favorable plea bargain.
With approximately 97 percent of convictions in federal court coming from guilty pleas, it’s an important and necessary expansion to ensure individual rights are protected at every stage of the criminal justice process. “In today’s criminal justice system,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “the negotiation of a plea bargain, rather than the unfolding of a trial, is almost always the critical point for a defendant.”
If we understand our constitutional rights as providing safeguards from excessive overreach and abuse of power by the state, especially in the criminal justice setting, then these decisions could really have been decided any other way.
Photo from mikecogh via flickr.