The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Thursday in United States v. Davila [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that judicial participation in plea negotiations does not automatically require vacatur of a defendant's guilty plea. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1) [text] provides that "[t]he court must not participate in [plea] discussions." Rule 11(h) states: "A variance from the requirements of this rule is harmless error if it does not affect substantial rights." Anthony Davila was charged with filing more than 130 false tax returns in the name of Florida inmates. He pleaded guilty after being advised by the judge that it was his best course of action. In an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court held that this violation of Rule 11(c)(1) did not require automatic vacatur of the guilty plea because Rule 11(h) is controlling. The court vacated the decision [text] of the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and remanded for further proceedings. Justice Antonin Scalia filed a separate opinion, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.
At oral arguments [JURIST report] in April, some of the justices expressed concern that if Rule 11(c)(1) were applied maximally, then minor actions of the judge could be used as an argument that the judge was influencing the negotiations and therefore be a basis for voiding a guilty plea. Counsel for the US argued that significant violations of Rule 11(c)(1), such as a judge pressuring the government outside of the defendant's presence to offer a plea, must be distinguished from minor violations, such as a judge indicating too strongly what type of new plea deal he would be willing to accept after rejecting the initial plea deal. Counsel for the US further argued that applying the rule too rigidly would trap judges in a corner where they couldn't guard against later ineffective assistance of counsel claims by discussing plea deals with the defendants because it would risk automatic reversal as a Rule 11(c)(1) violation. Counsel for Davila argued that this was not a trivial matter and that the judge had "abandoned his role as neutral arbiter and fundamentally distorted the pretrial process." Because of the judge's unique position as a alleged neutral arbiter, any influence that he has on the plea negotiation process is magnified and it puts an incredible amount of pressure on defendants.