Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in a 2003 photo. (Pete Souza / Chicago Tribune )
Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court, noting that virtually all criminal cases are settled through plea deals, has ruled for the first time that defendants have a right to competent advice from a lawyer on whether to accept an offer to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence.
At a minimum, the court said, the defendant must be told of any formal offers from a prosecutor that would result in a favorable deal.
The pair of 5-4 decisions handed down Wednesday could have a broad impact on the nation’s criminal justice system because of the importance of plea deals.
"Ours for the most part is a system of pleas, not a system of trials," said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. The "simple reality" is that 97% of federal convictions and 94% of state convictions result from guilty pleas, he said.
For that reason, it is crucial, he said, that the constitutional right to a competent lawyer is not limited to trials alone, but also to the back-and-forth of plea deals.
The justices ruled in favor of two men who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, but who could have served less time had they agreed to plea deals offered by the prosecutor.
One case, from Missouri, involved a repeat drunk driver who was offered a deal in writing to plead guilty and receive a recommended 90-day sentence. Galin Frye's lawyer did not tell him of the offer, and he later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison.
In Missouri vs. Frye, Kennedy said the lawyer’s failure violated Frye's rights.
"This Court now holds that, 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," he wrote. The defendant also has a right to a new hearing or the lower sentence if there is a "reasonable probability" the deal would have gone through had the defendant known of the offer, he added.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined to form the majority.
In a second case, from Michigan, Anthony Cooper was charged with attempted murder, but turned down an offer to plead guilty if the prosecutor asked for a sentence of about five to seven years in prison. Cooper relied on bad advice from his lawyer who supposedly said he would not be convicted of murder because he did not shoot the female victim above the waist.
Cooper went to trial, the jury convicted him on all counts, and he was sentenced to between 15 and 30 years in prison.
In Lafler vs. Cooper, Kennedy and the court agreed that the defendant had been denied his right to a competent attorney, and sent the case back to a Michigan judge to decide on a new sentence.
Justice Antonin Scalia sharply dissented in both cases. "Until today, no one has thought that there is a constitutional right to a plea bargain," he said, predicting the decisions will lead to endless litigation over the details.