ND Expert: Real significance of landmark ruling on plea deals

by Shannon Chapla

Eck Law School

Yesterday, in two cases (Missouri v. Frye and Lafler v. Cooper), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that criminal defense lawyers must meet minimum constitutional standards of effectiveness in plea negotiations with prosecutors.

Although some find it significant that the ruling extends the right to effective assistance of counsel to plea deals, Stephen F. Smith, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, says the significance of the decisions lies elsewhere.

“In several prior cases dating back to the 1980s, the court has held that defendants who accept plea deals based on erroneous legal advice are entitled to relief,” Smith says. “The decisions in the Frye and Cooper cases merely apply those rulings to the reverse situation of attorney errors that cause defendants to lose the benefit of favorable plea deals. In both contexts, the court’s reasoning is entirely sound. A criminal defendant’s right to a fair outcome – whether that outcome results from a trial or from plea bargaining – is violated when the outcome of the case is skewed by serious errors by defense counsel.”

An expert in criminal law and Constitutional criminal procedure, Smith says the real significance of the Frye and Cooper cases is not that the right to effective assistance of counsel applies to plea bargains, it’s that they reflect greater scrutiny of defense attorney performance in cases not involving the death penalty.

“For years, it has been clear that the court has closely scrutinized death sentences involving attorney error,” Smith says. “But, it has been unclear whether close scrutiny would apply in cases where the death penalty is not at issue. That uncertainty has now been eliminated. Even when the death penalty is not at stake, a majority of the Supreme Court has become increasingly insistent that defense attorneys handle their clients’ cases with competence and diligence. This is a significant step toward improving justice for criminal defendants in American courts. For far too long, defendants who are too poor to hire their own lawyers have been saddled with representation by overworked attorneys who lack the resources to investigate and vigorously defend their clients’ cases.

“The hope is that these cases will create much-needed incentives for states to increase the funding for indigent defense and to reduce the crushing caseloads that many of the nation’s public defenders struggle to manage.”

Contact: Stephen F. Smith, 574-631-3097 or ssmith31@nd.edu