Sunday, April 1, 2012

Supreme Court Hands Down Two Plea Bargaining Cases

As detailed by the SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court recently handed down two important decisions regarding plea bargaining in the cases of Missouri v. Frye and Lafler v. Cooper.
In Missouri v. Frye and Lafler v. Cooper, the Court held that criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel during plea negotiations, including when they miss out on, or reject, plea bargains because of bad legal advice. Writing for a five-four majority in each case, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy reasoned that the right to counsel extends to the plea-bargaining process because of the “simple reality” that plea bargaining is so pervasive in our system such that the negotiation of a plea “is almost always the critical point for a defendant.”

Justice Antonin Scalia, who pointedly read a summary of his dissenting opinions in both cases from the bench, called the decisions “inconsistent with the Sixth Amendment and decades of our precedent.” The four dissenting Justices also criticized the majority for failing to define the parameters of the governing legal standards, which they predicted will result in many years of litigation in the “newly created constitutional field of plea-bargaining law.”
Read the entire SCOTUSblog entry here.
I found the below portion of the decision in Frye particularly interesting.
The State’s contentions are neither illogical nor without some persuasive force, yet they do not suffice to overcome a simple reality. Ninety-seven percent of federal convictions and ninety-four percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas. The reality is that plea bargains have become so central to the administration of the criminal justice system that defense counsel have responsibilities in the plea bargain process, responsibilities that must be met to render the adequate assistance of counsel that the Sixth Amendment requires in the criminal process at critical stages. Because ours "is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials," Lafler, post, at 11, it is insufficient simply to point to the guarantee of a fair trial as a backstop that inoculates any errors in the pretrial process. "To a large extent . . . horse trading [between prosecutor and defense counsel] determines who goes to jail and for how long. That is what plea bargaining is. It is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system." Scott & Stuntz, Plea Bargaining as Contract, 101 Yale L. J. 1909, 1912 (1992). See also Barkow, Separation of Powers and the Criminal Law, 58 Stan. L. Rev. 989, 1034 (2006) ("[Defendants] who do take their case to trial and lose receive longer sentences than even Congress or the prosecutor might think appropriate, be- cause the longer sentences exist on the books largely for bargaining purposes. This often results in individuals who accept a plea bargain receiving shorter sentences than other individuals who are less morally culpable but take a chance and go to trial" (footnote omitted)). In today’s criminal justice system, therefore, the negotiation of a plea bargain, rather than the unfolding of a trial, is almost always the critical point for a defendant.
(Some Internal Citations Omitted). It will be interesting to see how far this logic extends, particularly given the significant attention currently being given to grand jury reform.

To read the entire opinions, click on the decisions here - Frye and Lafler.

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