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Supreme Court Issues Opinions on Ineffective Assistance of Counsel at Plea Bargain Stage


This week, the Supreme Court has issued three opinions and two grants of certiorari in cases of interest to criminal defense practitioners.

On Monday, the Court granted certiorari in two capital cases to address competency in federal habeas proceedings: Ryan v. Gonzales (No. 10-930) and Tibbals v. Carter (No. 11-218). In Ryan v. Gonzales the question presented is whether 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2), which provides that an indigent capital state inmate pursuing federal habeas relief “shall be entitled to the appointment of one or more attorneys,” entitles a death row inmate to stay the federal habeas proceedings he initiated if he is not competent to assist counsel. In Tibbals v. Carter, the Court will decide whether capital prisoners possess a “right to competence” in federal habeas proceedings under Rees v. Peyton; and 2) whether a federal district court can order an indefinite stay of a federal habeas proceeding under Rees. For more on these cases, see this SCOTUSblog post.

Later in the week, the Court issued a series of opinions on the right to effective assistance of counsel. On Tuesday, the Court ruled in Martinez v. Ryan (No. 10-1001) that where, under state law, ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims must be raised in an initial-review collateral proceeding, a procedural default will not bar a federal habeas court from hearing those claims if, in the initial-review collateral proceeding, there was no counsel or counsel in that proceeding was ineffective. For more on Martinez v. Ryan see this SCOTUSblog post.

In Missouri v. Frye (No. 10-444), issued on Wednesday, the Court held that the right to effective assistance of counsel extends to the consideration of plea offers that lapse or are rejected. More specifically, “defense counsel has the duty to communicate formal offers from the prosecution to accept a plea on terms and conditions that may be favorable to the accused. . . .When defense counsel [here] allowed the offer to expire without advising the defendant or allowing him to consider it, defense counsel did not render the effective assistance the Constitution requires.” In its opinion in Lafler v. Cooper (No. 10-209), also issued on Wednesday, the Court again addressed the right to effective assistance at the plea bargaining stage. The Court held that where counsel’s ineffective advice led to an offer’s rejection, and where the prejudice alleged is having to stand trial, a defendant must show that but for the ineffective advice, there is a reasonable probability that the plea offer would have been presented to the court, that the court would have accepted its terms, and that the conviction or sentence, or both, under the offer’s terms would have been less severe than under the actual judgment and sentence imposed.


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