March 01, 2014

U.S. Supreme Court Denies Relief to Defendant Who Relied on Lawyer’s Bad Plea Bargain Advice

On November 5, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided Burt v. Titlow and reversed the underlying grant of relief by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The Court originally granted certiorari in Titlow to determine what a defendant must prove in order to obtain relief under Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye, a pair of 2012 decisions extending the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel to plea bargaining. The Court ultimately did not reach that question, however, because it determined that the Sixth Circuit failed to properly apply the “doubly deferential” standard of review required under Strickland v. Washington and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).

In Titlow, the Court examined whether Vonlee Titlow’s counsel provided ineffective assistance when he advised her to withdraw her guilty plea. Ms. Titlow* initially pled guilty to conspiring with her aunt to murder her wealthy uncle in an attempt to inherit his estate. Shortly before the sentencing hearing, however, a sheriff’s deputy advised her not to plead guilty if she was innocent. Ms. Titlow then hired a new attorney who filed a successful motion to withdraw the plea. Ms. Titlow was subsequently convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to a 20-to-40-year prison term, and she appealed, alleging that the attorney who advised her to withdraw her plea had violated her constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.

The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected Ms. Titlow’s argument, stating that when a “defendant proclaims . . . innocence, however, it is not objectively unreasonable to recommend that the defendant refrain from pleading guilty.” The federal district court agreed with this analysis, but the Sixth Circuit reversed on the grounds that the Michigan Court of Appeals “unreasonably determined the facts in light of the evidence presented.” The Sixth Circuit noted that Ms. Titlow’s counsel stated in court that the withdrawal of the plea was due to the disparity between the State’s plea offer and Michigan sentencing guidelines and did not mention Ms. Titlow’s claim of innocence. The Sixth Circuit also observed that the record in the case contained no evidence that Ms. Titlow’s counsel “fully informed [her] of the possible consequences of withdrawing the guilty plea.” Finding that counsel was ineffective and citing to Lafler, the Sixth Circuit remanded the case with instructions that the prosecution reoffer the plea deal and that the state court fashion the appropriate remedy.

Although the Court granted certiorari on three questions, two of which concerned the requisite proof under Lafler, the Court ultimately determined that it was unnecessary to reach the questions related to Lafler because the Sixth Circuit had overreached. Justice Alito, writing for eight of the Justices, held that the Sixth Circuit “failed to apply th[e] doubly deferential standard by refusing to credit a state court's reasonable factual finding and by assuming that counsel was ineffective where the record was silent.” Justice Alito reaffirmed the importance of deferring to state court judgments under AEDPA and Strickland v. Washington. He wrote that AEDPA recognizes the “foundational principle of our federal system” that state courts “are adequate forums for the vindication of federal rights.” AEDPA provides that federal courts may overturn state court decisions only if the state decision is “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented” in state court. Further, Justice Alito stressed that the Strickland test also requires that counsel “should be strongly presumed to have rendered effective assistance.” The Court found that the record “readily supports” the Michigan court’s finding that Ms. Titlow’s counsel advised withdrawing her guilty plea “only after” her proclamations of innocence and thus the Sixth Circuit’s analysis could not be sustained.

Justice Alito also criticized the behavior of Ms. Titlow’s counsel, which was “far from exemplary” and may have violated rules of professional conduct, but stated that the Sixth Amendment “does not guarantee the right to perfect counsel.” Justice Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion stressing that defense counsel must undertake a thorough and independent investigation of the facts, laws, and pleadings before offering “his informed opinion as to what plea should be entered.” Justice Sotomayor further stated that she joined the Court’s opinion in full only “[b]ecause (and only because)” Ms. Titlow failed to prove that her counsel had been ineffective.

Justice Ginsburg also filed a concurring opinion and concurred in the judgment only. Justice Ginsburg stated that she found the Michigan court’s conclusion “dubious” and noted that Ms. Titlow’s counsel told her he could win at trial with “virtually no time to make an assessment.” Justice Ginsburg, however, wrote that she concurred in the judgment only because of the impossibility of reoffering the plea bargain, which “hinged entirely” on Ms. Titlow’s willingness to testify at her now-deceased aunt’s trial.

* Vonlee Titlow is a transgendered woman who is housed in an all-male prison facility, and the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project accordingly uses female pronouns to refer to her. The court opinions use a combination of male and female pronouns.