Court denies retroactivity to immigrant ruling

February 20, 2013

A 2010 Supreme Court ruling that lawyers fail their immigrant clients by not advising them of the deportation consequences that come with pleading guilty to certain crimes does not apply retroactively, the court ruled Wednesday.

By a 7 to 2 vote, the court closed the door to Chicagoan Roselva Chaidez and thousands of others who, before the court’s 2010 ruling in Padilla v. Kentucky , pleaded guilty to crimes only to learn later that the decision made them eligible for removal from the country.

The Chaidez decision was one of several criminal proceeding rulings issued Wednesday in which the sometimes fractured court was generally in agreement. In the Chaidez case, it was President Obama’s choices for the court who were divided.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the decision for the majority; Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the dissent and was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Chaidez is from Mexico and has been a lawful permanent resident of the United States since 1977. She pleaded guilty to being part of a scheme to defraud an automobile insurance company in 2004 and was ordered to pay restitution and serve four years of probation.


Justice Elena Kagan, top right, wrote the decision for the majority; Justice Sonia Sotomayor, top left, wrote the dissent and was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, bottom right. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

But she learned later that her plea subjected her to automatic deportation, which she said her attorney never told her. She sought to overturn her conviction on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel.

While her petition was pending, the Supreme Court decided Padilla, which, as Kagan noted, “vindicated Chaidez’s view of the Sixth Amendment: We held that criminal defense attorneys must inform non-citizen clients of the risks of deportation arising from guilty pleas.”

But the government argued that was of no use to Chaidez. Under Supreme Court precedent, government lawyers argued, the court’s decision in Padilla was a “new rule” and thus does not apply in cases in which convictions are already final.

Lower courts have disagreed on the issue, but Kagan said the government’s view was correct.

The court’s 1989 decision in Teague v. Lane “makes the retroactivity of our criminal procedure decisions turn on whether they are novel,” Kagan wrote.

The Padilla decision was just that, she said. “When we decided Padilla, we answered a question about the Sixth Amendment’s reach that we had left open, in a way that altered the law of most jurisdictions — and our reasoning reflected that we were doing as much.”

In dissent, Sotomayor said Padilla was not the drastic change in the law that the majority suggested. For years before, she said, lawyers had known that they should advise clients of the collateral deportation consequences of pleading guilty to a crime.

“The only difference from prior law was that the underlying professional norms had changed such that counsel’s failure to give this advice now amounted to constitutionally deficient performance,” Sotomayor wrote.

The case is Chaidez v. U.S.

In another criminal-procedure decision, the court ruled that a judge’s mistake that freed a defendant does not give the state a second chance to prosecute the individual.

In an 8 to 1 ruling authored by Sotomayor, the court said “a mistaken acquittal is an acquittal nonetheless,” and that retrying Lamar Evans on arson charges would violate the double-jeopardy clause of the Constitution.

There was no disagreement that the judge in Evans’s arson trial made a mistake. The judge acquitted Evans mid-trial after his attorneys argued that the prosecution had not proved an essential element of the charge. “It turns out that the unproven ‘element’ was not actually a required element at all,” Sotomayor wrote.

The Michigan Supreme Court said the judge’s error “does not constitute an acquittal for the purposes of double jeopardy” and said prosecutors could retry Evans. Other courts have split on the issue of mistaken acquittals.

But Sotomayor said that the acquittal, “however erroneous it was, precludes reprosecution on this charge.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was the lone dissenter in the case.

The case is Evans v. Michigan.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.
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