In a decision that one justice called "a major upheaval in Sixth Amendment law," the Supreme Court today ruled that lawyers have a constitutional obligation to advise clients of the collateral immigration consequences of a guilty plea in a criminal case.
The ruling came in Padilla v. Kentucky, which was eagerly awaited by bar leaders who have focused attention on the professional obligation of lawyers to alert clients about the growing array of consequences that flow from pleading or being found guilty. We wrote about the issue here last fall.
Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote for the 7-2 majority, cited "the weight of prevailing professional norms" in finding that lawyers must give accurate advice about deportation consequences of criminal proceedings as part of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, especially when the immigration law is "succinct, clear. and explicit."
In the case before the Court Jose Padilla, a legal permanent resident from Honduras (unrelated to the Jose Padilla involved in past terrorism rulings) pleaded guilty to drug distribution charges in Kentucky after his lawyer advised him not to worry about deportation because he had lived in the U.S. for 40 years. The erroneous advise exposed him to near-certain deportation, and he claimed ineffective assistance of counsel.
Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote a concurrence joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. calling the ruling a Sixth Amendment upheaval and arguing for a more limited obligation on the part of lawyers. Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote a sharp dissent, arguing that the majority had used "a sledge where a tack hammer is needed."
Reaction is beginning to roll in to a decision whose ramifications may grow in coming months and years. Elizabeth Wydra of the Constitutional Accountability Center, which filed a brief on the side of Padilla, called the ruling "a resounding victory for the Constitution." She added, "As Justice Stevens so eloquently explained in his majority opinion, it is the Court’s responsibility under the Constitution to ensure that no criminal defendant—whether a citizen or not—is left to the mercies of incompetent counsel."
Check back later here and at nlj.com for more on today's landmark decision and other Supreme Court action.
UPDATE: Our fuller story on the Padilla decision is here, Meanwhile, American Bar Association President Carolyn Lamm issued this statement about the ruling:
"Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States underscores how significantly our nation’s immigration laws have changed in recent years and how dramatic the impact of those changes are when noncitizens are accused of crimes. As Associate Justice John Paul Stevens said in the majority opinion, 'The importance of accurate legal advice for noncitizens accused of crimes has never been more important.' It rightly places the burden on criminal defense lawyers to understand that pleading guilty to certain crimes will result in deportation, and acknowledges that deportation can be an even more important penalty 'than any potential jail sentence' to a noncitizen. As the court also noted, the American Bar Association standards reflect the prevailing norms of practice and the intersection of modern criminal prosecutions and immigration law. We will to continue, and even redouble our efforts, to make sure that defense lawyers have the tools they need to fulfill their Constitutionally mandated role and our system ensures due process and access to justice as recommended by the ABA report on Reforming the Immigration System: Proposals to Promote Independence, Fairness, Efficiency, and Professionalism in the Adjudication of Removal Cases."