In Burt v. Titlow, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s holding that an attorney provided constitutionally inadequate representation by rejecting a plea deal with prosecutors without taking time to learn more about the case and the prosecutor’s evidence. In an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by seven other justices, the Court held that the appeals court incorrectly assumed ineffective assistance of counsel despite the state court’s reasonable factual findings and a record that was silent on the issue.
In July, TCP filed an amicus brief in which we argued that, if the Court found ineffective assistance of counsel, Titlow was entitled to the benefit of the original plea deal, which her attorney rejected. Though the Court’s finding of no ineffective assistance of counsel meant it never reached the issue, TCP believes the Court should take the earliest opportunity to clarify what relief a defendant is entitled to in such a situation. TCP’s brief, which was prepared with the generous pro bono support of Venable LLP, argued that the Court’s decision in Lafler v. Cooper requires that in cases of ineffective assistance of counsel at the plea stage, the prosecution must reoffer, and the trial court must accept, the original plea agreement.
The Court’s decision in Titlow also highlights the weaknesses of the Court’s current standards for evaluating ineffective assistance of counsel claims, as announced in the 1984 case Strickland v. Washington. As Justice Alito observes in his Titlow opinion, “[Counsel] may well have violated the rules of professional conduct… and he waited weeks before consulting respondent’s first lawyer about the case. But the Sixth Amendment does not guarantee the right to perfect counsel; it promises only the right to effective assistance, and we have held that a lawyer’s violation of ethical norms does not make the lawyer per se ineffective.” Such a standard does little to ensure that defendants receive representation that protects their constitutional rights and help achieve fair and just outcomes.