WASHINGTON (CN) – Challenging a gun charge to which he nevertheless pleaded guilty, a man who calls himself a “constitutional bounty hunter” curried favor with the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
“The nature of a plea shouldn’t be to automatically say you’ve lost all rights because you pled guilty,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor told a government attorney. “That’s basically what your position is today.”
Sotomayor and her colleagues met this morning to consider the case of Rodney Class, who made use of a secured parking lot near the U.S. Capitol on May 30, 2013, leaving a cache of guns and knives in his Jeep as he went to visit the nearby House and Senate office buildings. A veteran with a concealed carry-permit in North Carolina, Class says he did not realize the lot was on Capitol grounds and a gun-free zone.
The lot was also permit only, and a police officer who took a closer look at Class’ vehicle saw a large knife and an empty gun holster inside.
After his arrest, Class identified himself to the FBI as a “private attorney general” who travels the country with weapons to enforce laws against judges he believes are ignoring their duties. A self-appointed “constitutional bounty hunter,” Class hoped to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill that day who would sign off on paperwork that would make his title official.
Afterward he planned to make his way to Pennsylvania, where he believed a federal judge needed his intervention. Class never threatened to use a gun against a judge.
After he admitted to having the weapons, however, a police search of his Jeep uncovered three guns and multiple knives.
The following year, Class pleaded guilty in 2014 to one count of possessing a weapon on Capitol grounds. When he accepted his plea he acknowledged he would give up a number of constitutional rights, such as the right to trial and to cross-examine witnesses as well as the government’s burden of proof.
The judge in the case explained each of these rights, as well as the fact that Class could appeal if he believed his plea was involuntary, that there was a problem with the procedure or that the sentence imposed against him was illegal.
Importantly, however, his plea did not explicitly state that he waived his right to challenge the constitutionality of the gun law on appeal.
Class did just that four days later when he filed his appeal with the D.C. Circuit. It wasn’t until a year into the appeals process that the government argued Class’ constitutional challenge had been waived.
The D.C. Circuit agreed, setting the stage for Class’ appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Arguing his case this morning, Jenner and Block attorney Jessica Amunson said the government must make abundantly clear in plea agreements if it wants to prevent people from bringing constitutional challenges on appeal.
“And so our claim here is not that these claims cannot be waived,” Amunson said. “Our contention here is that they were not explicitly waived in the plea agreement and they were not otherwise forfeited by operation of the plea itself.”
The justices did not completely fall behind Amunson’s arguments, posing a series of questions about where the line is for what appeals a guilty plea naturally prevents. Justice Anthony Kennedy questioned what types of cases defendants could challenge under the rule, offering a hypothetical of whether someone could challenge the proper interpretation of a statute to which they pleaded guilty.
“What is the rule that you would propose for us to adopt in that case?” Kennedy asked.
But the justices were also highly skeptical of Assistant to the Solicitor General Eric Feigin’s claim that guilty pleas implicitly waive a defendant’s right to future constitutional challenges because any other arrangement would allow defendants to “silently” sit on future challenges that would undercut the benefit the government gains from cutting a plea deal.
“The broader legal point is that this court has made clear any number of times that a defendant need not be subjectively aware of everything that he is giving up in a plea in order for the plea to be a knowing and intelligent waiver of those rights,” Feigin said.
Feigin said if the court adopted Class’ interpretation, scores of people who are in prison on guilty pleas would suddenly be able to challenge their convictions in ways the government never anticipated.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, meanwhile, wondered whether the landmark interracial marriage case Loving v. Virginia would have ever come before the court if the government’s interpretation was correct.
The couple in Loving accepted plea deals to avoid serving prison time for their union, but they did not challenge those convictions for many years, inspired by gains in the civil rights movement.
Justices Stephen Breyer and Neil Gorsuch joined Sotomayor in pressing the point that guilty pleas waive rights directly related to the trial and not issues that might come up outside of the facts of the case.
“Naturally, you admit you did what the statute forbids,” Breyer said at Wednesday’s oral arguments. “But what you haven’t admitted is that the statute, for example, is a valid statute. You haven’t admitted that.”