The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision that criminal defendants have a right to effective legal representation during plea negotiations is a refreshingly pragmatic acknowledgment of how courts work.
About nine in 10 criminal cases nationally end in plea deals rather than trials. It's settled law that anyone charged with a crime has a constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel when they stand trial. Pleas should be no different.
What's at stake in either instance is whether a defendant will be found guilty and how much time, if any, he or she will spend behind bars.
In one of the two cases the court decided Wednesday, a Missouri man was charged with driving with a revoked license. It was a felony because he had been convicted of the offense three times before. A prosecutor offered a 90-day jail sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. But the man's lawyer didn't tell him about the offer. The prosecutor's offer expired and the man later pleaded guilty without a deal. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
The expanded right to effective counsel is likely to result in a wave of litigation challenging plea deals, as Associate Justice Antonin Scalia cautioned in dissent. But the eventual result will be clear guidance from the nation's top court about what's expected of defense lawyers and the plea process.
Plea deals are essential in the criminal justice system. If every defendant demanded a trial, as is their right, the courts would be overwhelmed. But justice demands deals that are negotiated fairly.