WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that defendants in a criminal court have the right to know whether or not a plea deal is offered by the prosecution and have the right to adequate advice as to whether or not to accept said plea deal.
“Ours for the most part is a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said for the 5 – 4 majority. Kennedy, often the bench’s swing vote between the liberal and conservative justices, was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
The two cases before the court were that of Missouri college student Galin Frye, and Anthony Cooper. Frye was charged with a felony of fourth offense of driving without a license and Cooper was charged with assault with intent to murder. In both cases, their respective lawyers declined the prosecution’s plea bargain. As a result Frye served a prison sentence ten times longer than he would have had he taken the plea, and Cooper served three times longer had he done the same.
Although the State contended that the defense provided ineffective legal assistance, the State had also concluded that it didn’t matter since the right to a plea bargain was not Constitutional. Wednesday’s ruling, however, rejected that.
Under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, citizens “shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial […] and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” Wednesday’s ruling concluded that plea bargaining, which results in over 90 percent of criminal convictions, is part of this right and must not be excluded. “The right to adequate assistance of counsel cannot be defined or enforced without taking account of the central role plea bargaining takes in securing convictions and determining sentences,” Justice Kennedy wrote.
Justice Antonin Scalia who expressed his dissent in the court room, said, “Until today, no one has thought that there is a constitutional right to a plea bargain.” He warned that the decisions in both cases were “a vast departure from our past cases” and would lead to endless litigation. Indeed, the decision opens a Pandora’s box. Although the Court has long held that defendants are entitled to a new trial if they can prove that their counsel was incompetent, the quagmire is whether the defendant can prove that he/she would have accepted the plea deal had he/she known about it.
Justice Scalia, in a dissent joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., called all of this “a process of retrospective crystal-ball gazing posing as legal analysis.”