From the “You Don’t Say” chronicles, a still-groundbreaking opinion1 [PDF] from the KY Supreme Court this week has ruled it unethical for plea agreements between the prosecution and the defense to include “waiver of ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claims” clauses.
For those who don’t know, everyone is guaranteed the effective assistance of counsel, pursuant to the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution. This means that every time you have a lawyer in a criminal case, that lawyer must perform to a reasonably competent standard. He doesn’t have to be perfect, but has to be competent.
A method of challenging convictions is to claim that the lawyer did not provide effective assistance: whether by performing poorly at trial, not conducting an adequate investigation or forcing a client to take a plea agreement without explaining everything properly or making sure it was in the client’s best interests.
An IAC claim is the final Constitutional check against illegal convictions. In Federal court, prosecutors routinely require defendants to give up that check in order to have a favorable plea bargain.
This KY opinion doesn’t say that an individual cannot voluntarily give up his right to IAC, but rather says that it is unethical for prosecutors to offer this and for defense lawyers to advise clients about it.
There are two primary reasons for this, both of which are valid: first, if a lawyer counsels his client to waive IAC against himself, it’s the fox guarding the henhouse. He has an inherent conflict in that situation. “Here, take this deal, but you have to agree not to challenge my performance in representing you”. That sounds like a scam from the get-go.
Second, Federal plea bargains are less “negotiations” and more “take-it-or-leave-it”:
Despite any notion of horse trading, plea agreements are often essentially contracts of adhesion. Indeed, in the context of appellate waivers, they have been labeled as such. The plea agreement often comes with a take-it-or-leave-it tone. And defense counsel is forced to deal with the provision if offered. Because the prosecutor is aware of our ethical rules, we see little reason why offering a contract of adhesion that requires a fellow attorney to perform unethically in order to comply with other ethical or constitutional obligations would not be “influencing or persuading” a fellow attorney to violate our ethical rules.
This decision is sure to make US Attorneys very unhappy, but it’s a small step in ensuring that lawyers are always acting in their own clients’ best interests and are not worried about being found incompetent.
H/T: Legal Ethics Forum