Lawyer competence was the topic of the day at the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, as justices heard two cases involving claims of ineffective assistance of counsel that violated the Sixth Amendment.
In one, a lawyer’s flawed advice exposed his client to deportation. In the other, the defense lawyer in a capital case called his client sick and twisted during a closing argument, and minimized mitigating evidence that might have helped avoid the death penalty.
In the first case, Padilla v. Kentucky, a lawyer told his client Jose Padilla, a permanent resident alien arrested for drug trafficking, that pleading guilty as part of a plea agreement would not expose him to deportation. That advice was flat wrong.
Padilla sued in 2004, claiming ineffective assistance that deprived him of his constitutional rights. But the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that incorrect advice on matters that are collateral to the criminal case don’t make out a case of ineffective assistance under the Supreme Court’s Strickland v. Washington standard.
Most U.S. Supreme Court justices seemed wary of expanding the definition of ineffective assistance to include flawed advice on matters beyond the actual criminal case the lawyer is handling.
“We have to decide whether we are opening a Pandora’s box here,” said Justice Antonin Scalia, who said flawed advice about the effect of a guilty plea on child custody could be another issue defendants would raise.
Justice Stephen Breyer also said, “The world is filled with 42 billion circumstances” that could trigger ineffective-assistance claims for other reasons.
Stephen Kinnaird of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, arguing for Padilla, said deportation is “so severe and so material” that the Court could limit its ruling to advice in that area. “The lawyer has the distinct duty to assess the advantages and disadvantages of the plea.”
Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben told the Court that a criminal defense lawyer does not have a constitutional duty to advise his client about immigration law, but if he or she does and does so incorrectly, “the lawyer has used his professional skills to undermine a personal decision that belongs to the defendant alone.”