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Supreme Court Expands the Scope of Right to Effective Legal Assistance
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On last Wednesday, a new ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court has changed the legal system in our country. The court held that the constitutional right to effective legal counseling extended to plea bargains that are later rejected or lapsed following poor advice from legal counsel. The ruling changes the legal landscape in that if an accused refuses the bargain of pleading guilty and chooses to go to trial, upon advice of the counsel, another bargain remains open to the accused. If the sentencing is higher than that offered by the initial plea-deal, then, if the lawyer had advised to reject the idea of pleading guilty and go to trial, the accused can claim having been deprived of effective legal assistance.

The sharply divided 5-4 decision of the court was decided by Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the liberals in two cases and the majority found the right to effective counsel applicable to informal plea bargain negotiations between criminal defendants and prosecutors.

However, in ruling for the second case on related issues, the court held that a defendant must show the existence of a “reasonable probability” that the judge would have accepted the plea bargain and that specifically the bad advice of the lawyer caused the defendant to stand trial and reject the bargain.


The fallout of these decisions on two cases from Missouri and Michigan can effectively lead to the reopening of many cases across the nation where convicts had passed up favorable plea bargains and chose to stand trial due to ineffective legal assistance.

In a country, where almost billions in legal expenses are saved because 95% of criminal cases end in plea bargains, the new pair of rulings can also see an escalation of business for lawyers and the court.

The rulings held that to show harm when a plea offer has lapsed or been rejected due to the bad advice of a lawyer, the defendants need to prove beyond reasonable doubt that if they had received effective legal advice they would have accepted the plea deal.

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In one of the cases, Justice Kennedy commented that when a defendant is able to prove ineffective legal assistance leading to a more sever sentence than the plea deal then there needs to be a remedy to “’neutralize the taint’ of a constitutional violation.”

Justice Scalia read his dissent from the bench and said that the defendants in the instant cases had been convicted and sentenced under constitutionally valid and fair procedures. He added “Until today, no one has thought that there is a constitutional right to a plea bargain … Today’s opinion opens a whole new field of constitutionalized criminal procedure: the field of plea-bargaining law. The court announces this new field in opinions that almost seem designed to sow confusion.”

The Supreme Court cases are Lafler v. Cooper, No. 10-209, and Missouri v. Frye, No. 10-444.


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