Supreme Court Rules On Plea-Bargain Rights

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in two cases that defense lawyers must effectively inform and advise their clients about plea bargains — or run afoul of the Sixth Amendment's right to the assistance of counsel.

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A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court applies to countless plea bargain negotiations that criminal defendants go through on their way to jail. The court ruled for the first time that criminal defendants are entitled to competent legal representations in those negotiations. And the court put teeth in its decision, too.

Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In one case before the court, Missouri college student Galin Frye was sentenced to three years in prison for driving with a revoked license. His lawyer never told him the prosecutor had previously offered a 90-day jail sentence.

In a second case, Anthony Cooper, charged with attempted murder, twice rejected a plea offer of four to seven years because his lawyer told him, erroneously, that state law did not permit a conviction on attempted murder charges if the victim is shot below the waist. Cooper was convicted and sentenced to a prison term of three times longer than the plea offer.

In both cases, the state conceded that the lawyers had failed to meet the basic standard set for adequate legal representation. But prosecutors said that didn't matter because there's no constitutional right to a plea bargain. Yesterday, though, the Supreme Court rejected that argument by a 5-to-4 vote.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that 95 percent of all convictions in this country are the result of plea bargains, not trials. The reality, he said, is that the criminal justice system is a system of pleas. And the right to competent assistance of counsel at trial that is guaranteed by the Constitution cannot exclude the central role plea bargaining plays at the pre-trial stage of the proceedings.

In all but a very few cases, said Kennedy, the pre-trial horse trading between prosecution and defense lawyers determines who goes to jail and for how long. It's not some adjunct to the criminal justice system. It is the criminal justice system.

Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg says that the court doesn't expect most defendants to have great representation or even good representation.

ROBERT WEISBERG: But it's appalled when it's horrifically bad representation. And it's sort of saying to the world: Get real. Most of the bad lawyering occurs in cases that involve plea bargaining because most cases involve plea bargaining.

TOTENBERG: Having laid down that marker, the court then went on to tell the lower courts how to handle cases when defendants have been cheated of competent counsel during the plea bargaining process. The court said that, consistent with state law, defendants should get a second chance to accept the original plea offer if they can show that they would have done so in the first place and if the prosecutor likely would not have withdrawn the offer and if the judge likely would have accepted the plea bargain.

Justice Kennedy suggested that these caveats may be particularly difficult for the bad driving college student to meet since he was arrested on a fifth driving charge a week before his sentencing. The other case, involving the attempted murder charge, however, illustrates how difficult it will be to recreate a legal scenario that has long ago evaporated into the air. Again, Professor Weisberg.

WEISBERG: It's as if we have to erase history, forget that the defendant was convicted at a fair trial, and somehow reconstruct behind some veil of ignorance the original plea bargain to see if it would have gone down.

TOTENBERG: All of this sent Justice Antonin Scalia and three other dissenters into a fury of objections. Said Scalia: The court, quote, "embraces the sporting chance theory of criminal law, in which the state functions like a conscientious casino operator, giving each player a fair chance to beat the house, that is, to serve less time than the law says he deserves."

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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