As a further explanation of an earlier post, the Supreme Court recently published opinions in two important cases, Lafler v. Cooper and Martinez v. Ryan. The cases recognize two obligations that attorneys owe their clients: (1) the right to effective counsel during plea-bargaining; and (2) a procedural remedy, if not a recognized right, during post-conviction challenges. Both cases set forth the minimum standards of constitutional protections to be afforded individuals during either the plea process or in some situations upon collateral post-conviction.

In Lafler, an attorney’s bad advice led a client to reject a prosecutor’s plea offer, resulting in a harsher sentence after trial. Noteworthy about this case is the Court’s expansion of the right to competent counsel to the plea bargaining process. Previously, there was no specifically recognized right to plea-bargaining or to a competent lawyer at that point. Justice Kennedy wrote the following:

“…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… Because ours ‘is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,’ the negotiation of a plea bargain, rather than the unfolding of a trial, is almost always the critical point for a defendant.”

In Martinez, the Court recognized the process – without going so far as recognizing the right – of people convicted in state court to receive effective assistance of counsel in collateral state post-conviction proceedings. Historically there has been only a right to effective counsel for direct appeals and no decision has hinted towards a right to counsel for collateral review of a conviction.

Justice Kennedy was careful tiptoeing through the opinion, making sure not to come out and explicitly say that a person has a right to counsel for such collateral proceedings. He did, however, say that there is a procedure by which an individual can seek federal review of a constitutional claim if the person was denied that opportunity in state court because of the ineffectiveness of his or her attorney:

“when a State requires a prisoner to raise an ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim in a collateral proceeding, a prisoner may establish cause for a default of an ineffective-assistance claim in two circumstances. The first is where the state courts did not appoint counsel in the initial-review collateral proceeding for a claim of ineffective assistance at trial. The second is where appointed counsel in the initial-review collateral proceeding, where the claim should have been raised, was ineffective under the standards of Strickland v. Washington.”

Both opinions produced harshly critical dissenting opinions from Justice Scalia. Scalia opined that the recent decisions would open the floodgates of litigation for both the newly recognized procedure in post-conviction proceedings and the right to effective counsel during plea negotiations.

Practically speaking the decisions could have substantial impact given that the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved by please rather than trials. While ethics demanded that attorneys relay information regarding plea deals, the law now mandates it. For many clients this is a small but important victory.

Headed to trial? Got a case that you want to talk about? Call our experienced Idaho criminal defense lawyers today at (208) 342-4633.