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The Nation

Supreme Court Clarifies the Right to Counsel When Pleading Guilty

March 09, 2004|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that although people who plead guilty to crimes are entitled to an attorney, judges don't have to warn them about the disadvantages of not seeing a lawyer.

Justices used the case of an Iowa man convicted of drunk driving to clarify rights under the Constitution's 6th Amendment, which guarantees legal assistance to those accused of crimes.

In its 9-0 ruling, the court reaffirmed that people facing prison are entitled to attorneys at critical stages of the process, including a plea hearing.

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said from the bench that the court had not "prescribed any formula or script to be read to a defendant who states that he elects to plead guilty without counsel."

The high court overturned an Iowa Supreme Court decision that said judges must tell defendants of the disadvantages of pleading guilty without consulting a lawyer.

Ginsburg said that states were free to adopt their own rules but that such warnings were not required.

Iowa had appealed the state court's decision, with the backing of the Bush administration and more than 30 states.

At issue was the case of Felipe Tovar, who didn't hire a lawyer when he went to court on drunk driving charges -- and didn't get the best deal possible.

Tovar's lawyer in the Supreme Court case said he should have been advised that his conviction could be kept off his record if he met certain conditions. Instead, that conviction from his days as a student at Iowa State University counted against him later when he was charged with third-offense felony drunk driving. The Iowa Supreme Court said the first conviction didn't count because he didn't knowingly waive his right to an attorney.

Ginsburg said the admonitions the state court required "might cause a defendant to wonder whether the court thinks he has a good defense, when in reality he does not."

The justices sent Tovar's case back to Iowa for more consideration.

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