2013 SCOTUS Round-up: Criminal Justice Edition, Part 1
Sara McDermott, Public Interest Law Intern

The last week of June the Supreme Court made headlines when it published its final decisions for the 2012 term. The Voting Rights Act case (Shelby County v. Holder) and the DOMA case (United States v. Windsor) in particular are sure to face much popular and scholarly analysis this summer. But before the term grows cold and Supreme Court watchers start speculating about the next term, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the Court’s major criminal justice decisions since October.

The Court addressed a number of questions important to criminal defendants this term, including whether police must normally get a warrant before forcibly drawing blood from an individual suspected of drunk driving (in Missouri v. McNeely the Court said they must), as well as the appropriate guidelines for the use of drug sniffing dogs (in Florida v. Jardines, the Court ruled that a warrant is required in order to bring a drug sniffing dog onto the porch of a home, but in Florida v. Harris it found that a drug sniffing dog’s “alert” can constitute probable cause authorizing a police search of a vehicle). Six cases from this term are particularly notable as they address TCP policy on the right to counsel and due process. These cases deserve a more extended review. Over the next few days we will summarize these decisions, and explain their likely consequences for those accused of committing crimes.

Chaidez v. United States

In February, the Court considered whether its decision in Padilla v. Kentucky (holding that the Sixth Amendment requires defense attorneys to inform non-citizen clients of the immigration consequences of a guilty plea) should apply retroactively to defendants whose convictions were already final as of the ruling.

In Chaidez the Court ruled that Padilla does not apply retroactively, a ruling with serious consequences for those non-citizens who pled guilty and whose convictions became final before Padilla was decided. The Court found that Padilla created a new rule—and as such, “a person whose conviction is already final may not benefit from the decision in a habeas or similar proceeding.” Justice Kagan, who authored the majority opinion, reasoned that Padilla dramatically changed existing law, and thus it could not have been “apparent to all reasonable jurists prior to [its] decision” that defense attorneys were required to inform clients of the collateral immigration consequences of their pleas. She relied on the structure of the Padilla decision, arguing that because the Court in Padilla first considered whether the ineffective assistance of counsel standard applied at all, before moving on to the question of how it might apply, the Court was dramatically expanding the requirements of the Sixth Amendment in the context of plea negotiations beyond what was commonly understood from prior precedent. Ultimately then, Justice Kagan concluded, the Court must have created a new rule when it decided Padilla.

The decision in Chaidez will prevent all former defendants whose cases were resolved before the Padilla decision from attacking their convictions based on claims that they were not informed of the consequences a guilty plea would have on their immigration status. Thus, Chaidez is a disappointing decision in the wake of the Court’s prior move to expand defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel in Padilla.

Boyer v. Louisiana

The Court’s next major Sixth Amendment case last term–Boyer v. Louisiana, decided in April– avoided addressing the current crisis in indigent defense funding by dismissing the case as improvidently granted. Initially, the question before the Court was “whether a state’s failure to fund counsel for an indigent defendant for five years, particularly where failure was the direct result of the prosecution’s choice to seek the death penalty, should be weighed against the state for speedy trial purposes.” In other words: if a State decides not to fund indigent defense at an appropriate level such that it causes egregious delays in commencing trial, should a defendant be able to argue, later on, that the funding decision impaired his or her right to a speedy trial?

The Court decided not to answer that question quite yet. In his concurrence, Justice Alito cited concerns that the defendant, not the state, had been largely responsible for the seven year delay in obtaining a trial. “Having taken up this case on the basis of a mistaken factual premise,” the Court declined to rule on the question at all.

Justice Sotomayor, writing for the dissent and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan, argued that the Court’s decision contradicted the lower court’s findings as to who was at fault for the delay. Instead of weighing in on factual questions, Justice Sotomayor continued, the Court should have simply decided the basic question for which cert was initially granted. Answering this question would be fairly simple for the Court: precedent dictates that the reason for delay is one factor that a court should consider when deciding a speedy trial case. Where the reason for delay is a neutral (as opposed to deliberate) one, the delay should weigh in the defense’s favor. This is because, as was the case in Boyer, indigent defendants have no control over neutral delays such as overcrowding in the courts or a State’s failure to adequately fund indigent defense. Justice Sotomayor explained, “States routinely make tradeoffs in the allocation of limited resources, and it is reasonable that a State bear the consequences of these choices.” As such, Louisiana’s failure to sufficiently fund indigent defense should count against the State in a speedy trial proceeding.

Interestingly, Justice Sotomayor included a stirring description of the current sorry state of indigent defense funding in the United States. She wraps up her dissent by powerfully observing that, “[a]gainst this backdrop, the Court’s silence in this case is particularly unfortunate. Conditions of this kind cannot persist without endangering constitutional rights.” Justice Sotomayor’s concern for the state of indigent defense, joined as she is by four of her fellow Justices, is a heartening nod to the future of similar speedy-trial claims, amidst an otherwise disappointing non-ruling.

The views expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of TCP, its committees, or boards. 

Donate Now

US Constitution

Upcoming Events