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Monday, June 26, 2017

SCOTUS Symposium: Lee v. United States and Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

As we wait for today’s decisions, I wanted to make a few quick comments about last week’s decision in Lee v. United States. Lee involved an ineffective assistance of counsel challenge.  Petitioner was a lawful permanent resident who had been indicted on drug charges.  His defense attorney negotiated a plea bargain for him that would have permitted Petitioner to serve less jail time.  Petitioner sought reassurance from defense counsel on multiple occasions that the plea deal would not result in deportation.  Despite defense counsel’s repeated reassurances to the contrary, the charges that Petitioner pleaded guilty to triggered mandatory deportation.

The question presented in Lee was whether Petitioner could get relief for his defense attorney’s ineffective assistance.  There was no dispute that defense counsel failed to provide constitutionally adequate assistance—misunderstanding relevant law and failing to investigate are basically the only attorney errors that satisfy the “deficient performance” prong of the ineffective assistance test. The other prong of the test is whether the defendant was prejudiced—namely whether, but for counsel’s deficient performance, the outcome of the proceeding would have been different.  Here, the Sixth Circuit concluded that Petitioner could not satisfy the prejudice prong because the evidence against him was overwhelming.  If the Petitioner would have been convicted at trial, the court reasoned, then the outcome would not have been “different”—Petitioner would have been convicted, imprisoned, and then deported.

In a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed.  In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts explained that the prejudice here was the Petitioner’s forfeiture of the right to trial by pleading guilty. In his dissent, Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Alito) argued that prejudice requires not only a showing that the defendant would have proceeded to trial, but also that the defendant would have been better off going to trial.  Both the majority and the dissent supported their positions with language from the Court’s previous ineffective assistance cases, none of which clearly settled this issue. 

Although I don’t think that the Court’s previous opinions necessarily settled this question, I do think the majority was nonetheless correct.  First, there are good reasons not to make the prejudice standard any more difficult to satisfy than it already is.  As many others have noted, the prejudice prong of ineffective assistance of counsel is notoriously difficult to satisfy.  And there is a reasonable argument to be made that it unfairly limits Sixth Amendment rights to the innocent. 

Second, the dissent’s prejudice standard would have been impossible for most defendants to satisfy.  A defendant who is deciding whether to plead guilty often does so without access to information that may have helped her assess her likelihood of success at trial.  As a result, a defendant who seeks to challenge the effectiveness of plea bargain counsel is unlikely to have access to information that would indicate that she might have prevailed at trial.

Finally, and most importantly, the majority opinion (at least implicitly) acknowledges the importance of the right to a jury trial.  Our criminal justice system is essentially a system of pleas, rather than a system of trials.  Substantive criminal law and criminal procedure are currently designed to ensure that the vast majority of defendants accept a guilty plea rather than insist upon their right to trial.     Implicit in our system of pleas is the idea that ours has become an administrative criminal justice system, more concerned about processing large numbers of defendants rather than ensuring justice through adversarial testing.  I happen to believe that the process of trial has its own value, not only to defendants, but also to society as a whole.  In saying that the deprivation of the proceeding of a jury trial is itself prejudice, the majority lends some support to that view---a view that used to be considered a bedrock principle in this country.

Posted by Carissa Byrne Hessick on June 26, 2017 at 09:47 AM in 2016-17 End of Term, Criminal Law | Permalink

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