What the U.S. Supreme Court Did to Us This Year

Key decisions by the nation's highest court eroded our constitutional protections of free speech and equal justice in ways that could have a great impact on the most vulnerable.

America's Supreme Court

Wood v. Allen: One of the court’s worst decisions this term can’t be blamed on the conservative majority. In a 7-2 decision written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court rejected a capital defendant’s claim that he received ineffective counsel when he was represented at the penalty phase of his capital murder trial by a lawyer who had only been licensed to practice law for five months. The lawyer regularly sought guidance and assistance from two experienced lawyers who had represented Wood at his criminal trial. The young lawyer assigned to the sentencing phase of the trial complained that he was in over his head and distressed by the lack of guidance from his experienced co-counsel. The inexperienced lawyer failed to put forward any evidence of mitigating factors about Wood’s difficult childhood and mental deficiencies that might have influenced the jury. Instead, the jury sentenced Wood to death. The Supreme Court found no violation of the Sixth Amendment and concluded — despite evidence to the contrary — that the young lawyer’s failure to present evidence of Wood’s mental deficiencies at the penalty phase might have been a ”strategic” decision. For criminal defendants — many of them minorities — who are often represented by underfunded and sometimes underskilled court-appointed attorneys, the implications of the court’s decision in Wood are staggering. Only Justices Anthony Kennedy and John Paul Stevens dissented.

The Best Decisions

Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida: In two cases from the Sunshine State, the Supreme Court ruled that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment to sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole for non-homicide cases. Terrance Graham was a 16-year-old when he was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison. Joe Sullivan was convicted of sexual battery when he was 13.

In one of the most watched decisions of the term, the Supreme Court said that the application of such a hopeless sentence on a teenager convicted of non-homicide offenses violates the Eighth Amendment. Even Chief Justice John Roberts abandoned his conservative colleagues and joined the majority on this case. It is estimated that nine individuals are serving life terms without parole in U.S. prisons for crimes committed when they were teenagers. Eight of the nine are black. But the decision has far-reaching implications for the runaway charging and sentencing practices in many states that brand teenage criminals as irredeemable.

Padilla v. Kentucky: In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court concluded that a criminal defendant who had lived as a lawful resident alien in the United States for 40 years and had served in active duty in Vietnam was denied his Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel when his attorney assured him that he would face no immigration consequences if he pleaded guilty to distributing marijuana. In fact, a guilty plea carried with it the guarantee that Jose Padilla would be deported.

The court held that Padilla’s attorney provided ineffective counsel because he not only failed to warn about the consequences of Padilla’s guilty plea but even advised his client that he needn’t worry about possible deportation. Criminal defendants need to know that pleading guilty to a crime can result in forfeiture of their right to vote, their right to live in public housing, and their ability to obtain federal student loans or, in some jurisdictions, to obtain a professional barber’s license. These ”collateral consequences” are often the hidden penalties that criminal defendants take on when they are convicted or plead guilty. The willingness of the court to recognize at least the obligation of criminal defense attorneys to provide competent, accurate information about deportation to immigrant criminal defendants is a positive step in recognizing the significance of collateral consequences for criminal defendants. It’s worth noting that Elena Kagan as solicitor general argued that ineffective assistance of counsel should not attach to the attorney’s advice about collateral consequences. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, along with Justice Antonin Scalia.