A Criminal Enterprise

Court-Watching: Padilla v. Kentucky

Posted in Cases, News by Bidish J. Sarma on October 20, 2009

On October 13, I sat in on the two oral arguments scheduled for the morning: Padilla v. Kentucky and Smith v. Spisak.  For this post on the Padilla case, I’ve relied on my own notes from the argument, the transcript posted on the Supreme Court’s website, and some media observations after the argument.

According to his merits brief to the Supreme Court, the Petitioner, Jose Padilla, arrived in the United States in the 1960s and is a permanent resident here.  In 2001, Padilla was arrested and charged with felony trafficking in marijuana after he was pulled over with more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana in his commercial truck.  When he asked his defense lawyer if there were any immigration consequences to pleading guilty to the felony, the attorney said that he “did not have to worry about immigration status since he had been in the country so long.”  The crime, however, is a deportable crime that subjects Padilla to deportation.

In his petition to the Supreme Court, Jose Padilla raises the question of whether the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel protects him from his attorney’s misadvice.

The heart of the dispute is whether the Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel in all “criminal” prosecutions includes a guarantee of effective assistance in advising the client on the collateral consequences of that prosecution.  In American law, immigration matters are considered ‘civil’ in nature, even though they can lead to deportation.  Here, the Petitioner argues that the current standard that governs ineffective assistance of counsel claims (Strickland) evaluates the misadvice claim based on if the counsel’s performance is deficient and prejudicial to the client.  The deficiency prong of the Strickland is met when the counsel’s actions are objectively unreasonable.  The State, however, argues that civil collateral matters fall beyond the scope of the Sixth Amendment, and that misadvice on collateral matters does not give rise to a claim of ineffective assistance.

In addition to the two parties slated to appear, the U.S. government made a (somewhat surprising) appearance.  Though the government supported ‘affirmance’ of the ruling below in favor of Kentucky, the argument demonstrated that the government did not support the Respondent’s legal reasoning.

Stephen B. Kinnaird of the firm Paul, Hastings argued the case for Mr. Padilla.  In a clear effort to pitch to the Roberts’ Court purported affinity for judicial minimalism, he began by articulated the “narrowest ground” for the resolution: “The narrowest ground on which this Court may reverse the Kentucky Supreme Court is to hold that mis-advice claims are cognizable under the Sixth Amendment.”  Justices Roberts, Alito, and Ginsburg all immediately asked questions about what conduct this principle covers – for example, does it extend to advice on whether the defendant should take the stand?  The concern is how the Court should decide which consequences receive Sixth Amendment protection and which do not.  Mr. Kinnaird said, “Your Honor, the issue here is simply the legal standard that applies to any of — any of these claims, and it would be the same two-part standard under Strickland v. Washington.”

Justice Kennedy raised a distinct concern – he worried that the court had no means to insulate its proceedings from ineffective assistance.  Drawing on principles in contract law, he asked whether the court could require the defendant to assume the risk of collateral consequences by including a warning in the colloquy that happens when the defendant pleads guilty:

You take the risk of any mis-advice, any misunderstanding, with respect to collateral conduct. That’s your risk, and it’s part of the guilty plea. If we said that, would that foreclose this kind of argument in your case?

Kinnaird maintained that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel put unique duties on the lawyer that do not similarly bind the trial court.  This response didn’t seem to satisfy Kennedy, who said, “Well, then there is no way the government or the court can protect itself against the — these consequences . . . .”

Justice Alito raised the last major strand of concerns with the Petitioner’s argument.  He worried that public defenders who handle hundreds of cases each year will have trouble remembering exactly what advice they gave their clients when they are hauled in to testify on ineffective assistance hearings.  Alito seemed particularly worried in the context where the defendant decided to plead guilty because there is no trial proceeding to refer to.  Mr. Kinnaird insisted that these proceedings would look like other Strickland hearings.

After the Petitioner closed, Michael Dreeben appeared on behalf of the United States.  He took the position that the Sixth Amendment does not impose upon defense counsel a duty to advise his client about collateral consequences, but that “mis-advice given by defense counsel on a material collateral consequence to a defendant” is a different concern. In a back-and-forth exchange with Dreeben, Chief Justice Roberts probed this position.  He posed the following question:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Won’t — won’t your test result in a net loss to defendants? I assume if this is adopted as a rule, the affirmative misrepresentation rule, then every lawyer is going to say what you said they should say: I’m here for the criminal case; I’m not telling you anything about anything else, as opposed to saying, sitting down and saying: Here’s what you need to know. And in most cases we expect the lawyer to do a professional job. If you have got an alien, he is going to tell him: Well, what — you know, this will cause you to be deported. Instead, every lawyer now is going to say: I’m not giving you any advice about anything else.

Dreeben responded,

No, I don’t think that it will lead to sort of defensive malpractice type of counseling where lawyers do not do the job that they feel that they should do, and experience tends to support that.

Alito riffed off of the Chief Justice’s question, arguing that indigent immigrant defendants will meet with public defenders who will tell them to go hire an immigration lawyer to answer their immigration questions.  Essentially, the conservative justices tried to spin economic arguments that undermined the liberal concern with the well-being of indigents on their own terms.

Once Mr. Dreeben finished on behalf of the U.S. government, Mr. Wm. Robert Long, Jr. argued for Kentucky.  The questions to the Respondent noticeably came from the ‘liberal’ Justices.  Justice Sotomayor – who had been silent until this point – fired the first question.  At the same time, she demonstrated her understanding of the considerations at play in a criminal prosecution:

Counsel, a plea is something more than: I’m guilty. It is a strategic decision not to put the government to its burden of proof. Your definition of voluntariness suggests that there is only one component to it, do I know what my rights are, as opposed to, do I know what they are and making an informed decision to waive those rights.  Your articulation of the rule leaves out the second component: Am I making an informed decision to waive those rights?

Justice Breyer attempted to corner Mr. Long by getting him to concede that had he been the lawyer and knew his client would be deported, he would have given informed his client.  As usual, Justice Scalia took the chance to clash with Breyer at oral argument:

JUSTICE SCALIA: Well, but assuming it’s a norm and that all lawyers do it [tell the client of the consequences], including those that know diddly about immigration law, the norm is to give bad advice. And here — here the norm was met, right?

After this line, Justices Stevens and Ginsburg asked a few more questions about what the State means when it says the Sixth Amendment does not apply to “collateral” consequences.  The bench then cooled, and the State finished the final few minutes of its presentations with relatively few questions.

In his rebuttal, Mr. Kinnaird may have made a statement that could snipe one of the conservative Justices and win a narrow opinion in his client’s favor:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: So you can make a claim when the lawyer disavows the knowledge on the question? In other words, he is trying to be helpful, but he also warns the defendant.

MR. KINNAIRD: Yes. Under the broader rule, you would have a Strickland claim. It would be very hard to prevail on that because you would have to show that it was unreasonable for him not to investigate . . . .

Essentially, the Petitioner’s rebuttal was a timely reminder that Strickland is not exactly the easiest standard for defendants to meet.  Maybe that reminder will be enough to satisfy those Justices concerned that the floodgates to ineffective assistance will be opened if the Court recognizes that the Sixth Amendment imposes some obligations on defense attorneys to understand collateral consequences of a criminal prosecution.

My initial take from the oral argument was the same as Adam Liptak’s.  As he wrote in this piece in the New York Times:

Several Supreme Court justices on Tuesday appeared sympathetic to a criminal defendant who unwittingly agreed to be deported by pleading guilty to a drug crime. But the justices seemed uncertain about whether they could fashion a legal rule that would address extreme cases without causing turmoil in the criminal justice system.

Others have also commented on the oral argument.  SCOTUSblog’s take is here; law.com’s review is here.

I find this case extremely fascinating because it has implications in a number of important contexts:

  1. It directly implicates the scope of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.  After listening to Chief Justice Roberts emphasize the importance of the attorney-client relationship (in the corporate context) in the Mohawk oral argument, I wonder how this Court will treat that same relationship in the criminal (and collateral) context.
  2. This case might turn out to touch on how we think about the rights of immigrants and whether we believe they can access a panoply of rights in the U.S. Constitution.
  3. Padilla could also have serious implications for immigrants in new communities in the U.S.  As immigrant populations continue to grow in parts of the country that are historically unfamiliar with cultural diversity, a ruling in Mr. Padilla’s favor will create a stir for local defense bars.  On the other hand, if the Court rules in Kentucky’s favor, immigrants will become more vulnerable to unfair policing practices that could result in their deportation.
  4. The outcome in this case will also give insight into whether the Constitution entails some notion of client-centered advocacy.  If the Court recognizes that the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistances governs Mr. Padilla’s claim, there will be (at least a limited) constitutional command for client-centered advocacy that recognizes that “collateral” issues have constitutional significance.
  5. Finally, a ruling in Mr. Padilla’s favor could cast some official doubt on the farcical notion that immigration proceedings are merely civil/administrative in nature.  It is this notion that underpinned the Supreme Court’s ruling in INS v. Lopez-Mendoza that an immigrant does not have the right to counsel at deportation proceedings.  Though we may never see that decision revisited, we could see an emergent recognition that immigrants deserve more serious protection under our Constitution and laws.  (For more on the civil/criminal distinction as applied to immigration cases, check out this post).
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One Response

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  1. John Knutton said, on October 21, 2009 at 2:56 am

    I’m a 3L at Barry University School of Law, in Orlando, FL, and am writing a law review note on this very case! I’m extremely interested to see how the court decides. I’m hoping that the Court rules that the 6th Amendment right to effective counsel in fact means that non-citizens are entitled to be informed that pleading guilty to certain offenses can indeed lead to deportation. At the very minimum, attorneys who take non-US-citizen clients should be aware of their client’s risk of deportation.

    I am also a Research Assistant for Professor Leonard Birdsong. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog – please pay his blog a visit: http://birdsongslaw.com.

    Thanks!


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