The Supreme Court ruled today 5-to-4 in favor of a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to an effective lawyer during plea negotiations.

In two closely watched cases, the issue was whether a client should suffer the consequences when his lawyer totally screws up his plea negotiations. Over the dissent of Justice Antonin Scalia and 3 other conservatives, the Court ruled that clients have a right to an effective lawyer, even when they decide to plead guilty.

It has been long accepted that the Sixth Amendment give a person charged the right to an effective lawyer at trial. But what happens when a client wants to plead guilty, which 95% percent of defendants do?

In two closely watched decisions, Missouri v. Frye and Lafler v. Cooper, the Court today ruled that when a lawyer’s incompetence causes a client to turn down a favorable plea, and the client then gets slammed at trial, there is relief. It’s a difficult road to get there, but there is relief of those who can show harm.

In Frye, the defense lawyer never bothered to tell his client that the State had offered him a plea bargain. In Cooper, defense counsel told his client he couldn’t legally be convicted of murder because he had shot a woman “below the waist.” Where his attorney got the “below the waist” rule is anybody’s guess. But Cooper took one below the waist, rejecting a plea bargain of 7 years and was instead sentenced to the 30 year maximum.

It’s not surprising that our justice system would not tolerate this kind of horrible lawyering. Failing to communicate a plea offer is black-letter incompetence or neglect. Dreaming up wacky legal principles like the “below the waist rule” in a murder defense is inexcusable.

What is surprising is that 4 out of 9 justices voted to let these convictions stand. The right to “assistance of counsel” is found in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. Assistance of counsel means an attorney with some basic level of competence, not some fool who hasn’t a clue about what he is supposed to do or an understanding of the charges and the possible defenses. When there is horrible lawyering – and these lawyers were truly horrible – justice demands a remedy. In this case, it came by just one vote.

Categories: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

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