Poor advice should not overturn rulings

The United States’ legal system is very much a result of trial and error. Some of the most important amendments to the Constitution were written into being because someone made a mistake. Take the Fifth Amendment, for example. If the police fail to read Miranda rights, a confession may be rendered useless. Anyone who has ever seen an episode of Law and Order knows them by heart: you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you, etc, etc. But what happens when the process of trial and error becomes about the attorneys themselves?

What you get are the events that transpired on Monday, Oct. 31. This Halloween, oral arguments were heard by the Supreme Court for two cases in which the judgment of the attorney was called to question. In the first case, originally tried in 2003, defendant Anthony Cooper refused a plea bargain based on the assurance from his attorney that he would not be convicted of assault with intent to murder since the four bullets he fired at his victim all struck below the waist.

I can appreciate that this was poor advice, but common sense should have raised a red flag in that particular case. Either way, the voluntary choice to shoot a woman was made, and that offense is definitely punishable by rule of law.

However, in another case, the defendant’s attorney failed to inform him of the plea bargain offered until after it had expired. As a result, defendant Galin E. Frye was sentenced to three years in prison as opposed to the possible 90 days for driving without a license. The problem in this situation seems much more apparent. Two very different cases, both re-tried because poor advice was given regarding plea bargains. The situation raises the question of whether or not bad legal advice is unconstitutional, or violates our legal rights in some way.

The answer seems highly subject to interpretation; attorney Brian Perry said in an interview with Pennlive.com, “The plea-bargain process is an essential part of the criminal justice system. If clients are making decisions based on bad recommendations by lawyers, then that should be relevant in whether that client was treated fairly by the criminal justice system.”

In cases like Frye’s, sympathy is more easily experienced. Considering cases like Cooper’s for the sake of consistency seems to give a free pass to criminals guilty of more severe crimes.

Would the outcome of the case render malpractice suits—lawsuits that protect against negligently performed legal service—obsolete?  Malpractice law was fashioned to protect citizens from just this kind of courtroom conundrum. It seems as though reviewing it for the Constitution may almost create another excuse for criminals to walk.

Is this a can of worms we as a nation really want to open? And how will the outcome affect prosecutors’ right to exercise discretion with bargains in the future? These questions can’t be answered, of course, until a decision is rendered, but, in the meantime, I worry for the accountability of our justice system.