March 31, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Padilla v. Kentucky

On March 31, the Supreme Court decided Padilla v. Kentucky, No. 08-651, holding that a criminal defendant had been deprived of his right to "effective assistance of counsel" when his trial lawyer failed to advise him that pleading guilty to drug-distribution charges would lead to his deportation. But the Court declined to decide whether he had been prejudiced by this failure so as to entitle him to habeas corpus relief.

Jose Padilla, an alien residing legally in the United States, pleaded guilty in Kentucky state court to transportation of a large amount of marijuana. His resulting conviction exposed him to mandatory deportation after his sentence was completed. He sought relief from his conviction, alleging that he had been denied effective assistance of counsel because his trial lawyer had failed to warned him that he would be deported if he pleaded guilty and in fact had told him not to worry about deportation because he had been in the country legally for 40 years. He claimed that he would not have pleaded guilty had he been properly advised. The Supreme Court of Kentucky denied relief, holding that the Sixth Amendment did not apply because deportation was merely a "collateral" consequence of his conviction.

The Supreme Court reversed. It observed that deportation or removal from the United States is virtually inevitable for a vast number of noncitizens convicted of crimes and that accurate legal advice for noncitizen defendants therefore is extremely important. Although removal proceedings are civil, they are so closely related to the criminal process that advice concerning deportation cannot be categorically excluded from the scope of the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance. Here, the failure of Padilla's trial counsel to advise him about the potential impact of his guilty plea on his continued residence in the United States fell below an "objective standard of reasonableness," and Padilla's constitutional right to effective assistance therefore was violated. "Prevailing professional norms" require such advice. Padilla's counsel could easily have determined that deportation would be almost inevitable simply by reading the statute, and the advice counsel gave was incorrect. Even if the prospect of deportation had been less clear, counsel should at least have advised that the pending charges might carry adverse immigration consequences.

The Court declined, however, to consider whether the deprivation of Padilla's rights had prejudiced him, so as to entitle him to relief from his conviction, because that question had not been decided below.

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion for the Court, in which Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Chief Justice Roberts joined. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Thomas joined.

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