The right to counsel is one of the glories of this nation's legal system, but it means little if a client can't depend on his lawyer to provide an accurate account of his legal options. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court confronted a compelling case of what can happen when a defendant relies on inaccurate legal advice. Jose Padilla, a legal U.S. resident and a Vietnam veteran, asked the justices to overturn his guilty plea to a drug charge because his lawyer had misled him about whether the plea would lead to his deportation to his native Honduras.
Instead of seeing Padilla's predicament as a clear violation of the 6th Amendment's right to counsel, several justices at an oral argument agonized over whether a ruling in his favor would open what Justice Antonin Scalia called a "Pandora's box" of new burdens on lawyers.
"What about advice on whether pleading guilty would ... cause him to lose custody of his children?" Scalia asked Padilla's lawyer. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wondered if a rule dealing with inaccurate legal advice would cover a situation in which a lawyer urged his client to testify, even though taking the stand might lead to losing his job or a government contract. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked whether a defense attorney must also advise a client that a guilty plea could lead to the loss of his driver's license or his right to vote.