Supreme Court further defines ineffective counsel
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Supreme Court further defines ineffective counsel

The US Supreme Court held Wednesday that the Sixth Amendment‘s presumption of prejudice of ineffective counsel applies to situations in which an attorney declines to file an appeal because an appeal waiver was signed as part of a plea agreement.

The case, Garza v. Idaho, centered on Petitioner Gilberto Garza’s claim that his lawyer offered ineffective counsel by refusing to file an appeal on his behalf. Garza’s attorney refused, believing that an appeal would be problematic because Garza had signed an appeal waiver as part of a plea agreement. After the opportunity to file an appeal lapsed, Garza filed for post-conviction relief from the state of Idaho, which the Idaho Supreme Court ultimately denied.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority, applied the two prong test developed in Strickland v. Washington:

[A] defendant who claims ineffective assistance of counsel must prove (1) “that counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness,” … and (2) that any such deficiency was “prejudicial to the defense.”

Roe v. Flores-Ortega further defined the second prong of the Strickland test by requiring the presumption of prejudice if a defendant can prove that it would be reasonably likely an appeal would have been filed but for defendant’s inadequate counsel.

Since signing an appeal waiver did not necessarily preclude all appellate options, the court held prejudice should be presumed.

Accordingly where, as here, an attorney performed deficiently in failing to file a notice of appeal despite the defendant’s express instructions, prejudice is presumed ‘with no further showing from the defendant of the merits of his underlying claims.’

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito in part, wrote a dissent in which he argued for a more specific rule. Thomas argued that defendants in Garza’s situation must identify prejudice through demonstrating potential appellate claims outside the appeal waiver, showing the plea was coerced in some way, or proving that the government had failed to follow the plea deal.