Padilla v. Kentucky: Sixth Amendment Effective Assistance of Counsel Requires Criminal Defense Lawyers to Advise Clients When Pleas Carry a Risk of Deportation

Yesterday the federal Supreme Court decided Padilla v. Kentucky. The Court recognized its “responsibility under the Constitution to ensure that no criminal defendant – whether a citizen or not – is left to the mercies of incompetent counsel. To satisfy this responsibility, [the Court held] that counsel must inform her client whether his plea carries a risk of deportation.”

Until yesterday’s decision, the lower federal courts almost unanimously held that lawyers are required to tell their clients about only ‘direct’ consequences of pleading guilty. Deportation (now called “removal”) has long been seen as a potential collateral consequence of certain convictions. While professional norms have long required such advice, until Padilla, failure to so advise did not meet the Strickland test for ineffectiveness. The Court held that the direct/collateral distinction is inappropriate in a Strickland claim concerning deportation risk.

The Strickland test has two prongs. First the Court must decide whether the attorney’s representation “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” The second prong, prejudice to the defendant, was not at issue in Padilla because the lower courts had not reached it. This second prong may be difficult to satisfy in many of these cases because many states require trial courts to advise defendants who plead guilty of potential immigration offenses. Here in Georgia, in 2000 trial courts began advising defendants that a guilty plea “may have an impact” on the defendant’s immigration status. However, Padilla may be a useful tool for challenging certain guilty plea convictions in Georgia prior to 2000.

The opinion, written by Justice Stevens, is available here. Justice Alito issued a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Roberts. They would have limited the rule to prohibit only completely incorrect legal advice. Justice Scalia dissented, joined by Justice Thomas, writing that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the defendant a lawyer only for the defense of the criminal case and not for advice regarding any collateral matters.