The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Friday for an immigrant who had received poor legal advice from his counsel. The petitioner in Lee v. United States [SCOTUSblog materials] came to the US from South Korea in 1982 and found success as a businessman. In 2009 he was charged with possession of ecstasy with an intent to distribute. Concerned for his residency status in the US, Lee took the advice of his lawyer who told him he would not be deported if he pleaded guilty. Lee’s attorney was incorrect and the conviction carried a mandatory deportation. In order to have his sentence vacated, Lee needed to show that he not only had ineffective legal counsel but that he was prejudiced because he took erroneous advice. The court recognized that “preserving the client’s right to remain in the United States may be more important to the client than any potential jail sentence.” In his opinion Chief Justice John Roberts considered Lee’s three decades in the US, during which he had established two businesses and never once returned to South Korea, as well as his naturalized parents’ dependency on his care. Roberts concluded:
Lee’s claim that he would not have accepted a plea had he known it would lead to deportation is backed by substantial and uncontroverted evidence. Accordingly we conclude Lee has demonstrated a reasonable probability that, but for [his] counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented and was joined by Justice Samuel Alito except in Part One. Thomas asserted that overturning a guilty plea “where a defendant has admitted his guilt, the evidence against him is overwhelming, and he has no bona fide defense strategy” because his attorney had not “properly advised him of the immigration consequences of his plea” is not supported by the Sixth Amendment [text] or precedent.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case in December and heard oral arguments [JURIST reports] in March.