“The reality is that plea bargains have become so central to the administration of the criminal justice system that defense counsel have responsibilities . . . that must be met to render the adequate assistance of counsel that the Sixth Amendment requires,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote. He was joined by the court’s liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
That is the case, the majority said, even if the defendant is unquestionably guilty or has received a fair trial after turning down a plea bargain.
Since more than nine in 10 cases involve a plea rather than trial, the decision will mean greater constitutional scrutiny of the negotiations central to almost every prosecution.
“It seems to me the court has created a new body of constitutional law,” said Connecticut Assistant State’s Attorney Michael J. Proto, who wrote a brief for 27 states urging the court not to extend the constitutional guarantee to plea bargains. “There are a lot of unanswered questions, and it is going to spawn a lot of litigation.”
Margaret Colgate Love, who helped write an American Bar Association brief that advocated for the court’s action, agreed about its impact.
“What makes these cases so important is the Supreme Court’s full-on recognition of the centrality of plea bargaining in the modern criminal justice system and its extension of constitutional discipline to the outcome of the plea process,” she said.
The decisions prompted a scathing rebuttal from Justice Antonin Scalia, delivered from the bench to signal his displeasure.
Scalia called the rulings “absurd” and said the majority had twisted the constitutional right to ensure defendants get a fair trial into one in which they have a chance “to escape a fair trial and get less punishment than they deserve.”
He added in a written dissent, “Today, however, the Supreme Court of the United States elevates plea bargaining from a necessary evil to a constitutional entitlement.”
The court’s conservatives — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — voted with Scalia.
The court was considering two cases in which all parties agreed that the lawyers involved had failed their clients.
In one, Galin Edward Frye’s attorney never told him of plea bargain offers from Missouri prosecutors on charges that he was driving with a revoked license. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison. Prosecutors had offered Frye a couple of deals, one of which would have required 10 days in jail.