The court ruled 6-3 for Gilberto Garza Jr., who waived his right to appeal in two plea agreements, then changed his mind and told his lawyer to file an appeal.
The lawyer did not file the appeal notice because of the waiver, and the deadline passed. In a petition for post-conviction relief, Garza argued that his lawyer had provided ineffective assistance.
To prove ineffective assistance, defendants must show that their lawyer’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and that the deficiency was prejudicial to the defense.
The issue was whether Garza was entitled to a presumption that his lawyer’s failure to file the notice caused prejudice, a presumption that had been recognized in a 2000 case in which there was no appeal waiver. The prior case was Roe v. Flores-Ortego.
The Supreme Court said Garza could rely on the presumption. “We hold that the presumption of prejudice recognized in Flores-Ortega applies regardless of whether the defendant has signed an appeal waiver,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the majority.
An appeal waiver is not an absolute bar to all appellate claims, Sotomayor said. The language of appeal waivers can vary widely, and some leave many types of claims unwaived. Prosecutors may also forfeit or waive the waiver. And some waivers can be challenged; an unknowing or involuntary waiver is not enforced, for example.
“Accordingly, a defendant who has signed an appeal waiver does not, in directing counsel to file a notice of appeal, necessarily undertake a quixotic or frivolous quest,” Sotomayor said.
Sotomayor also said filing an appeal notice is purely a ministerial task, and substantive claims don’t have to be raised at this stage.
In an amicus brief, the federal government argued that a defendant who signs an appeal waiver should have to show there were nonfrivolous grounds to appeal. That argument can’t be squared with Supreme Court precedent, Sotomayor said.
“This court has already rejected attempts to condition the restoration of a defendant’s appellate rights forfeited by ineffective counsel on proof that the defendant’s appeal had merit,” Sotomayor wrote. “The more administrable and workable rule, rather, is the one compelled by our precedent: When counsel’s deficient performance forfeits an appeal that a defendant otherwise would have taken, the defendant gets a new opportunity to appeal.”
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented in an opinion joined by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and partly joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Thomas said Garza’s lawyer “quite reasonably declined to file an appeal,” recognizing that it could jeopardize the plea bargain. The majority opinion finding per se deficient performance and per se prejudice creates a “defendant-always-wins” rule, he said.
Alito did not join a section of Thomas’ opinion that implied Gideon v. Wainright (1963) had been wrongly decided. In the section, Thomas, joined by Gorsuch, said “the Sixth Amendment appears to have been understood at the time of ratification as a rejection of the English common-law rule that prohibited counsel, not as a guarantee of government-funded counsel.”
Thomas went on to say, “our precedents seek to use the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to achieve an end it is not designed to guarantee. The right to counsel is not an assurance of an error-free trial or even a reliable result. It ensures fairness in a single respect: permitting the accused to employ the services of an attorney.”
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