Supreme Court Expands Precedent on Ineffective Counsel

In this Oct. 9, 2018, photo, police office guards the main entrance to the Supreme Court in Washington. The Supreme Court has agreed to consider a case about the reach of a federal clean water law. The justices agreed Tuesday to hear a case involving the Clean Water Act. The act requires polluters to get a permit when they release pollution from a source such as a pipe or well to certain bodies of water such as rivers and lakes that are called “navigable waters.” The case involves treated wastewater from the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility in Hawaii.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Defendants whose cases suffered because their lawyers performed poorly are entitled to the benefit of presumed prejudice even in cases where they waived their rights to appeal, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The case stems from the prosecution in Idaho of Gilberto Garza Jr., who signed away his appellate chances in 2015 when he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and possession of a controlled substance. 

In an ensuing petition for postconviction relief, Garza said his lawyer rendered ineffective assistance by failing to file the notices of appeal that he requested repeatedly.

Idaho courts ruled against Garza, however, finding that he could not make the necessary showing that the deficient performance at issue resulted in prejudice.

Reversing that ruling Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that this requirement goes against the rule that prejudice to the defendant should be presumed “when an attorney’s deficient performance costs a defendant an appeal that the defendant would have otherwise pursued.”

“That an appeal waiver does not bar claims outside its scope follows from the fact that, ‘although the analogy may not hold in all respects, plea bargains are essentially contracts,’” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority today. 

“As with any type of contract, the language of appeal waivers can vary widely, with some waiver clauses leaving many types of claims unwaived,” the ruling continues. “Additionally, even a waived appellate claim can still go forward if the prosecution forfeits or waives the waiver. Accordingly, a defendant who has signed an appeal waiver does not, in directing counsel to file a notice of appeal, necessarily undertake a quixotic or frivolous quest.”

Quoting a 2000 ruling in the case Roe v. Flores-Ortega, Sotomayor emphasized that filing an appeal is “‘a purely ministerial task that imposes no great burden on counsel.”

“Where, as here, a defendant has expressly requested an appeal, counsel performs deficiently by disregarding the defendant’s instructions,” Sotomayor added.

As to why the presumption applies in this case, Sotomayor wrote that Garza’s waiver did not cover every issue.

“Garza did retain a right to his appeal; he simply had fewer possible claims than some other appellants,” the ruling states. “Especially because so much is unknown at the notice-of-appeal stage, it is wholly speculative to say that counsel’s deficiency forfeits no proceeding to which a defendant like Garza has a right.”

Joined in dissent by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito, Justice Clarence Thomas called the decision by Garza’s attorney to ignore his appeal requests  “quite reasonabl[e]..”

“The majority finds Garza’s counsel constitutionally ineffective, holding that an attorney’s performance is per se deficient and per se prejudicial any time the attorney declines a criminal defendant’s request to appeal an issue that the defendant has waived,” Thomas wrote. “In effect, this results in a “defendant-always-wins” rule that has no basis in Roe v. Flores-Ortega or our other ineffective-assistance precedents, and certainly no basis in the original meaning of the Sixth Amendment.”

Garza is represented by Amir Ali at the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center. Neither he nor a representative for the Idaho Attorney General’s Office has returned an email seeking comment.

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