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Supreme Court ruling improves rights of defendants

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision gave defendants a small gift. After a ruling last week, defendants now have a constitutional right to effective legal representation during plea bargain negotiations in criminal cases from assault to investment fraud. The ruling was 5-to-4 in two decisions that gave judges more discretion and authority.

These decisions mean that the old days of deal making in the corridor may become less common. Such deals could come back to haunt not only defendants but also prosecutors and defense lawyers. If a defendant receives poor legal advice and rejects a favorable plea offer as a result, he or she would have legal recourse and could be entitled to a new trial, according to the Supreme Court majority.

This could have far-reaching consequences for the legal system. Because an overwhelming majority of convictions in federal courts are the result of guilty pleas, having even a small percentage of these cases re-tried because of ineffective counsel during plea negations could impose a significant burden on the court system.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, noted that because the vast majority of cases are decided during negotiations, defendants should have the same right to effective counsel that they have if their cases go to trial. However, he acknowledged that the emphasis on effective counsel during negotiations could lead to unfounded claims, and that such claims could be avoided by requiring offers to be made in writing or in open court, rather than in the hallway outside the courtroom.

Source: New York Times, "Justices' Ruling Expands Rights of Accused in Plea Bargains," Mar 21, 2012.

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