Supreme Court Extends Right to Effective Counsel to Plea Bargains

March 22, 2012

by Nicole Flatow

The U.S. Supreme Court significantly expanded the right to counsel in a pair of decisions issued Wednesday that established defendants’ right to the effective assistance of a lawyer during plea negotiations.

“Criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the five-justice 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.”

Kennedy added that the right to effective assistance of counsel applies to “all ‘critical’ stages of the criminal proceedings.”

About 97 percent of convictions in federal court are the result of plea bargains and not a trial, according to The New York Times.

Widener University law professor Wesley M. Oliver told The Times the decisions constitute “the single greatest revolution in the criminal justice process since Gideon v. Wainwright provided indigents the right to counsel.”

The defendants in both cases, Missouri v. Frye and Lafler v. Cooper, received harsher sentences at trial because their lawyers failed to properly advise them about plea deals.

Galin E. Frye’s lawyer was never told by his lawyer about an offer to plead guilty to driving without a license in exchange for a 90-day sentence. He was sentenced to three years after trial.

Anthony Cooper’s lawyer incorrectly advised him that he could not be convicted of assault with intent to murder. Based on that advice, Cooper rejected a plea deal to serve four to seven years. He was convicted of that charge and sentenced to 15 t0 30 years.

Ensuring adequate representation for indigent defendants in both state and federal courts is a problem across the board. The American Constitution Society has published a series of Issue Briefs on indigent defense reform that considers remedies from reclassifying misdemeanors, to following the medical community’s model of systematically analyzing routine errors.

Catholic University law professor Cara H. Drinan writes in the first Issue Brief in the series:

There is no dearth of evidence documenting the national crisis in indigent defense services.The primary symptoms of this crisis include drastic underfunding of indigent defense delivery systems; crushing attorney workloads that force committed defenders to compromise their ethical obligations on a daily basis; a lack of investigative and expert assistance; a chronic inability to develop meaningful attorney-client relationships; and, of course, unnecessary and sometimes unlawful imprisonment.

See all of the Issue Briefs, including a preview of this term’s bevy of Sixth Amendment cases, at ACS’s Indigent Defense page.