High Court Mulls Constitutional Attacks After Guilty Pleas

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By Alisa Johnson

The U.S. Supreme Court heard argument Oct. 4 over whether a guilty plea inherently waives a defendant’s right to challenge the constitutionality of the law under which he was convicted ( Class v. United States , U.S., No. 16-424, argued 10/4/17 ).

It prompted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to ask Eric J. Feigin of the U.S. Department of Justice, arguing for the government, whether the court had made “a slip” when it addressed and struck down laws that criminalized interracial marriage 50 years ago.

Mildred and Richard Loving pleaded guilty to violating Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage, but later challenged the ban’s constitutionality in Loving v. Virginia, Ginsburg pointed out.

Rodney Class made a guilty plea that was voluntary, knowing, and unconditional, Feigin responded. In the federal system, unqualified pleas waive all non-jurisdictional defects, he said.

The high court’s decision in Loving “seems to be strongly for the other side,” Ginsburg told Feigin. “Is that just a slip that the Court didn’t notice that they had pled guilty and, therefore, shouldn’t be able to raise the constitutional question?” she asked.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch suggested that “maybe the most natural and historically consistent understanding of what a guilty plea is,” is simply “you’re admitting to what’s in the indictment” and no more.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit below held that Class’s unconditional guilty plea waived his ability to appeal his conviction.

Jessica R. Amunson of Jenner & Block, Washington, argued that Class’s challenge to his statute of conviction is akin to the claims the court held were not inherently precluded by guilty pleas in two prior cases, Blackledge v. Perry and Menna v. New York.

Like the defendants in those cases, she said, Class is not challenging his factual guilt but rather the statute itself. Therefore, she said, Class may be guilty under the statute but the government still cannot constitutionally prosecute and convict him.

His plea agreement included an explicit waiver of appeal rights only as to sentencing errors and collateral attacks on the conviction. But the circuit court was not convinced that he retained a right to challenge the statute of conviction.

Although almost all federal criminal cases are resolved via a guilty plea, the justices seemed unconcerned about the future should they hold that the statute can be challenged. The government will simply be more specific about what the defendant is waiving when drafting future plea agreements, some of the justices pointed out.

Class was convicted of unlawfully carrying and having readily accessible a firearm on U.S. Capitol grounds.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alisa Johnson in Washington at ajohnson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

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Transcript available at http://src.bna.com/s6Y.

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