A deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that criminal defendants who receive inadequate legal advice on pretrial plea bargains can have their sentences overturned, equating that with an unconstitutional and ineffective assistance of counsel.
The separate 5-4 decisions in of cases from Michigan and Missouri will have a huge, immediate impact on the 97% of federal convictions and 94% of state convictions that stem from guilty pleas.
"This court now holds that, as a general rule, defense counsel has the duty to communicate formal offers from the prosecution to accept a plea on terms and conditions that may be favorable to the accused," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, joining four of his more liberal colleagues. "When the defense counsel allowed the offer to expire without advising the defendant or allowing him to consider it, defense counsel did not render the effective assistance the Constitution requires."
In a rare oral dissent delivered from the bench, Justice Antonin Scalia called the majority decision "absurd" and "unheard-of."
In unusual detail, the opinion lays out specific guidelines to defense counsel, saying they must relay plea bargain offers from the prosecution, regardless whether the lawyer believes them to be proper.
The case from Michigan involved Blaine Lafler, convicted of assault with intent to murder and other charges, after shooting and seriously wounding a woman.