SCOTUS Protects Defendants At The Plea Stage

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.

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Photo from mikecogh via flickr.


ERIKA S11 months ago


ERIKA S11 months ago


David H.
David H.5 years ago

While a UK citizen, where plea bargaining does not, as such, exist, I can understand the case for a extension of US constitutional rights for defendents. Since, as has been said, 97% of guilty verdicts in the US now come from plea bargaining it would appear just that defendents have some right of redress where it can be shown that the incompetence of their attorney had significant impact on their decision to do so.

lis Gunn
lis Gunn5 years ago

This begs the question. How does one ensure the competence of the lawyers in criminal cases.
Where do lawyers appear on social approval scales? Above or below politicians, used car salesmen, wall street bankers?

The whole issue of plea bargaining is a worry. Although cheaper, it certainly does not convince one that justice will be done. But that's another issue.

Robert O.
Past Member 5 years ago

I think, if this applies to corporate criminal behavior, that the justices meant it to help corporations.

Vivianne Mosca-Clark

The justice system has been exploited. The judges have a 'guide' line to follow. They did not have the right to change the guide lines about the sentencing of a person. The misdemeanor are now almost all felonies. If you remember felons have done the most horrible crimes, and now almost all 'crimes' are felons.
The judges have had a of of their power taken away from them. You will be a felon for having to many ticket while driving. .stealing a couple of dollars of food, will make you a felon now. This is all making ton of money for the people who own them.
I so want my country back. The last few presidents have made changes in our government and courts that put the citizens in box's. I want out. No box's for me.

Linda T.
Linda T5 years ago

Thanks for the very important infomation.

Winn Adams
Winn A5 years ago


Sue Jones
Sue Jones5 years ago

A country that prizes justice and innocent until proven guilty will always be trying to balance the rights of the accused against the rights of the victim - and mistakes will be made as we're all only human - but any time we can make the "mistakes" less likely, we have the obligation to do that. Glad to see this decision.

J.L. A.
JL A5 years ago

Great example of why the interpretation of the constitution requires adjustment to the changing times and can never remain static and still do its job of provision and protection of rights.