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Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court in two landmark decisions, Missouri v. Frye and Lafler v. Cooper, extended the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel to plea bargaining. Venable attorneys Alex Megaris, Widge Devaney, and John Cooney, representing pro bono client The Constitution Project, filed one of four amicus briefs on behalf of the respondent-defendants Frye and Cooper, who were represented by their local public defenders.

In its 5-4 decisions written by Justice Kennedy, the Court keyed into the policy arguments that Venable and other amici made that the American criminal justice system has become a system of pleas, not of trials, with 97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases settled with guilty pleas. Therefore, respondents and amici argued, ineffective assistance of counsel at the plea bargaining stage could no longer be expunged because the defendant ultimately received a fair trial or entered a knowing and voluntary plea.

To that end, in Frye Justice Kennedy stated, “The reality is that plea bargains have become so central to the administration of the criminal justice system that defense counsel have responsibilities in the plea bargaining process, responsibilities that must be met to render the adequate assistance of counsel that the Sixth Amendment requires in the criminal process at critical stages.”