High court sides with immigrants over bad legal advice

Washington — When a lawyer advises that a plea deal is the best option and won’t result in deportation, most immigrants facing criminal charges agree to plead guilty.

But what if the lawyer is wrong, and deportation is certain?

The Supreme Court ruled 6-2 Friday that immigrants in those circumstances can have a second chance in court and risk going to trial, even if the prosecution’s case is very strong.

The justices sided with South Korean native Jae Lee, who has lived most of his life in the United States. Lee pleaded guilty to drug charges in 2009 after his lawyer mistakenly assured him he would not be deported.

In fact, Lee, who had been living in the Memphis, Tennessee, area, pleaded guilty to the kind of serious crime that makes deportation near-automatic for noncitizens.

He was sentenced to a year in prison, but has been behind bars for 7½ years while fighting to withdraw his plea and take his chances at trial, John Bursch, Lee’s Supreme Court lawyer, said.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court that Lee can withdraw the guilty plea on drug charges that his lawyer advised him to enter.

“But for his attorney’s incompetence, Lee would have known that accepting the plea agreement would certainly lead to deportation. Going to trial? Almost certainly,” Roberts wrote.

But in this case, he continued, “that ‘almost’ could make all the difference.”

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. Thomas wrote that the decision “will have pernicious consequences for the criminal justice system” because plea deals negotiated in good faith may not remain final.

The federal appeals court in Cincinnati had ruled that the evidence against Lee was overwhelming and that he would have been convicted had he rejected the plea offer and gone to trial. Other appeals courts around the country have sided with immigrants in similar circumstances, the position the Supreme Court adopted Friday.