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Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Immigrant with Bad Legal Advice
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Summary: A South Korean immigrant that received bad legal advice was granted permission from the Supreme Court to reopen his case.

The United States Supreme Court sided with an immigrant that claimed he received bad legal advice from his attorney. North Korean immigrant Jae Lee contended that his attorney told him pleading guilty to a drug charge would not lead to deportation. Jae Lee learned the truth and asked for a retrial.


In a 6 to 2 vote, the Justice ruled that Lee should get another attempt at a trial. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority in their decision to give Lee the chance at a trial even though there is a large amount of evidence against him. As Roberts wrote, “But for his attorney’s incompetence, Lee would have known that accepting the plea agreement would certainly lead to deportation. Going to trial? Almost certainly.”

Roberts continued, “if deportation were the determinative issue for an individual in plea discussions, as it was for Lee; if that individual had strong connections to this country and no other, as did Lee; and if the consequences of taking a chance at trial were not markedly harsher than pleading, as in this case, that ‘almost’ could make all the difference.”

Lee emigrated in 1982 from South Korea with his family when he was 13-years-old. He moved to Memphis after graduating from high school in New York. There he got into the restaurant world. He stayed a lawful resident but not a citizen. He never returned to South Korea.

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Lee was arrested for possession of ecstasy with the intent to distribute. His lawyer suggested he plead guilty with a plea deal for a shorter sentence. This lawyer told Lee he would not be subjected to deportation after serving his year and a day sentence. This was not true. Lee filed a motion to vacate his conviction due to ineffective assistance of counsel.

Roberts added, Lee “would have rejected any plea leading to deportation – even if it shaved off prison time – in favor of throwing a ‘Hail Mary’ at trial. Not everyone in Lee’s position would make the choice to reject the plea but we cannot say it would be irrational to do so.”

The evidence against Lee was exceptionally strong. Police found large amounts of drugs in his home and there is a witness prepared to testify about buying drugs from him. Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented. Thomas wrote, “In the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt and in the absence of a bona fide defense, a reasonable court or jury applying the law to the facts of this case would find the defendant guilty. There is no reasonable profitability of any other verdict. A defendant in petitioner’s shoes, therefore, would have suffered the same deportation consequences regardless of whether he accepted a plea or went to trial. He is thus plainly better off for having accepted his plea: Had he gone to trial, he not only would have faced the same deportation consequences, he also likely would have rejected a higher prison sentence.”

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled against Lee, stating that he suffered no prejudice. The court believed the correct legal advice would not have helped him and going to trial would have resulted in a loss and deportation anyway. Judge Alice M. Batchelder of the appeals court admitted that they were not entirely happy about their ruling. She stated, “It is unclear to us why it is in our national interests – much less the interests of justice – to exile a productive member of our society to a country he hasn’t lived in since childhood for committing a relatively small-time drug offense. But our duty is neither to prosecute nor to pardon; it is simply to say ‘what the law is.”

Do you think deportation should be reserved for only certain circumstances like only violent crime offenses? Tell us in the comments below.

To learn more about recent legal immigration problems, read these articles:



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