US Supreme Court overturns ISC decision on right to appeal

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By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports 

The United States Supreme Court reversed an Idaho Supreme Court decision on Wednesday, siding with an Idaho inmate who claimed his public defender was ineffective. The broad ruling has nationwide implications, giving more clarity on the standard for waiving certain rights in court.

The case, Garza v Idaho, centered on the right to appeal. In 2017, the Idaho Supreme Court rejected petitioner Gilberto Garza Jr’s claim that his trial attorney was ineffective after the attorney ignored Garza’s requests to file an appeal after Garza had agreed to plea agreements. Wednesday’s 6-3 ruling reverses that decision, with Justice Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch dissenting. 

In 2015, Garza signed two plea agreements that waived his right to appeal. Shortly after sentencing, Garza informed his court-appointed public defender that he wished to appeal anyway. The attorney declined, citing those plea agreements, and ignored repeated phone calls and letters from Garza asking to file the appeal.

The 2017 Idaho Supreme Court opinion said it was unclear at the time what the standard for ineffective counsel was once a defendant knowingly signed a plea agreement that waived certain rights.

“Generally, when trial counsel fails to file an appeal at a criminal defendant’s request, such performance is professionally unreasonable and therefore deficient,” Chief Justice Roger Burdick wrote. “To show that counsel’s deficient performance was prejudicial, the defendant must show there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s deficiencies, the result of the proceeding would have been different. This test applies to claims that counsel was ineffective for failing to file a notice of appeal.”

“However, whether counsel was ineffective becomes unclear when the reason the attorney did not file the appeal is because the client waived the right to appeal as part of a plea agreement,” Burdick wrote. As of 2017, other courts had ruled on the issue and had split their opinions, but neither the Idaho Supreme Court nor the US Supreme Court had weighed in.

That changed this week. Justice Sonia Sotomayor penned Wednesday’s majority opinion, saying that language in plea agreements varies, and the possibility exists for waivers of appeal forfeitures.

“Garza’s attorney rendered deficient performance by not filing a notice of appeal in light of Garza’s clear requests,” Sotomayor wrote. “Given the possibility that a defendant will end up raising claims beyond an appeal waiver’s scope, simply filing a notice of appeal does not necessarily breach a plea agreement. Thus, counsel’s choice to override Garza’s instructions was not a strategic one. In any event, the bare decision whether to appeal is ultimately the defendant’s to make.”

Sotomayor wrote the ruling doesn’t mean Garza’s plea agreement is meaningless.

“Contrary to the argument by Idaho and the U. S. Government, as amicus, that Garza never ‘had a right’ to his appeal and thus that any deficient performance by counsel could not have caused the loss of any such appeal, Garza did retain a right to his appeal; he simply had fewer possible claims than some other appellants,” she wrote.

Sara Thomas, administrative director for the Idaho Supreme Court, said Wednesday’s ruling has broad implications for court proceedings nationwide.

“I think the biggest thing here is there is clarity for defense attorneys to understand what their responsibilities are,” Thomas said, adding this applies to public defenders and private attorneys alike. “Clarity is good.”

The opinion sets a more clear standard for waivers on two fronts, Thomas said: The language of the waiver needs to be specific as to which rights a defendant is waiving, and attorneys need to know that defendants are knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waiving those rights.

“There will be, I think, a big shift in procedure and how cases flow through the system,” Thomas said.

Idaho Reports will have more on this ruling. Meanwhile, you can listen to the October 2018 oral arguments here, and read Wednesday’s opinion here. 

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