Jose Padilla, a native of Honduras, was a lawful permanent resident of the United States for more than 40 years, and served this Nation with honor as a member of the U. S. Armed Forces during the Vietnam War. Charged with the crime of transporting a large amount of marijuana in his tractor-trailer, he agreed to plea guilty, his lawyer assuring him that he "did not have to worry about immigration status since he had been in the country so long."
Padilla's lawyer was wrong. Deportation was virtually mandatory for a conviction of this crime, and Padilla insists that he would have gone to trial if he had received correct advice from his attorney.
In a 7-2 decision released on Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States held that Padilla was deprived of his constitutional right of effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment, that constitutionally competent counsel would have advised him that his conviction for drug distribution made him subject to automatic deportation, and that he was entitled to relief if he could prove he was prejudiced by this bad advice. As the Court explained, "We now hold that counsel must inform her client whether his plea carries a risk of deportation."
Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court, for himself and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor:
Under Strickland, we first determine whether counsel’s representation “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Then we ask whether “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” The first prong—constitutional deficiency—is necessarily linked to the practice and expectations of the legal community: “The proper measure of attorney performance remains simply reasonableness under prevailing professional norms.”
The weight of prevailing professional norms supports the view that counsel must advise her client regarding the risk of deportation.... We too have previously recognized that “ ‘[p]reserving the client’s right to remain in the United States may be more important to the client than any potential jail sentence.’ ” ...
In the instant case, the terms of the relevant immigration statute are succinct, clear, and explicit in defining the removal consequence for Padilla’s conviction. See 8 U. S. C. §1227(a)(2)(B)(i) (“Any alien who at any time after admission has been convicted of a violation of (or a conspiracy or attempt to violate) any law or regulation of a State, the United States or a foreign country relating to a controlled substance ... , other than a single offense involving possession for one’s own use of 30 grams or less of marijuana, is deportable”). Padilla’s counsel could have easily determined that his plea would make him eligible for deportation simply from reading the text of the statute, which addresses not some broad classification of crimes but specifically commands removal for all controlled substances convictions except for the most trivial of marijuana possession offenses. Instead, Padilla’s counsel provided him false assurance that his conviction would not result in his removal from this country. This is not a hard case in which to find deficiency: The consequences of Padilla’s plea could easily be determined from reading the removal statute, his deportation was presumptively mandatory, and his counsel’s advice was incorrect.
Immigration law can be complex, and it is a legal specialty of its own. Some members of the bar who represent clients facing criminal charges, in either state or federal court or both, may not be well versed in it. There will, therefore, undoubtedly be numerous situations in which the deportation consequences of a particular plea are unclear or uncertain. The duty of the private practitioner in such cases is more limited. When the law is not succinct and straightforward (as it is in many of the scenarios posited by Justice Alito), a criminal defense attorney need do no more than advise a noncitizen client that pending criminal charges may carry a risk of adverse immigration consequences. But when the deportation consequence is truly clear, as it was in this case, the duty to give correct advice is equally clear.
The Solicitor General urged the Court to limit its holding to affirmatively misadvice, and not to failures to alert the client who didn't ask. The Court resisted such a narrow holding:
A holding limited to affirmative misadvice would invite two absurd results. First, it would give counsel an incentive to remain silent on matters of great importance, even when answers are readily available. Silence under these circumstances would be fundamentally at odds with the critical obligation of counsel to advise the client of “the advantages and disadvantages of a plea agreement.” When attorneys know that their clients face possible exile from this country and separation from their families, they should not be encouraged to say nothing at all. Second, it would deny a class of clients least able to represent themselves the most rudimentary advice on deportation even when it is readily available. It is quintessentially the duty of counsel to provide her client with available advice about an issue like deportation and the failure to do so “clearly satisfies the first prong of the Strickland analysis.”
Justice Alito and the Chief Justice concurred
, albeit on narrower grounds:
In my view, such an attorney must (1) refrain from unreasonably providing incorrect advice and (2) advise the defendant that a criminal conviction may have adverse immigration consequences and that, if the alien wants advice on this issue, the alien should consult an immigration attorney. I do not agree with the Court that the attorney must attempt to explain what those consequences may be. As the Court concedes, “[i]mmigration law can be complex”; “it is a legal specialty of its own”; and “[s]ome members of the bar who represent clients facing criminal charges, in either state or federal court or both, may not be well versed in it.” The Court nevertheless holds that a criminal defense attorney must provide advice in this specialized area in those cases in which the law is “succinct and straightforward”—but not, perhaps, in other situations. This vague, halfway test will lead to much confusion and needless litigation.
[T]he Court’s rigid constitutional rule could inadvertently head off more promising ways of addressing the underlying problem—such as statutory or administrative reforms requiring trial judges to inform a defendant on the record that a guilty plea may carry adverse immigration consequences. As amici point out, “28 states and the District of Columbia have already adopted rules, plea forms, or statutes requiring courts to advise criminal defendants of the possible immigration consequences of their pleas.”
They'd leave the constitutional violation to affirmative misadvice only:
In concluding that affirmative misadvice regarding the removal consequences of a criminal conviction may constitute ineffective assistance, I do not mean to suggest that the Sixth Amendment does no more than require defense counsel to avoid misinformation. When a criminal defense attorney is aware that a client is an alien, the attorney should advise the client that a criminal conviction may have adverse consequences under the immigration laws and that the client should consult an immigration specialist if the client wants advice on that subject. By putting the client on notice of the danger of removal, such advice would significantly reduce the chance that the client would plead guilty under a mistaken premise.
Justices Scalia and Thomas, dissenting
In sum, a criminal defense attorney should not be required to provide advice on immigration law, a complex specialty that generally lies outside the scope of a criminal defense attorney’s expertise. On the other hand, any competent criminal defense attorney should appreciate the extraordinary importance that the risk of removal might have in the client’s determination whether to enter a guilty plea. Accordingly, unreasonable and incorrect information concerning the risk of removal can give rise to an ineffectiveness claim. In addition, silence alone is not enough to satisfy counsel’s duty to assist the client. Instead, an alien defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel is satisfied if defense counsel advises the client that a conviction may have immigration consequences, that immigration law is a specialized field, that the attorney is not an immigration lawyer, and that the client should consult an immigration specialist if the client wants advice on that subject.
In the best of all possible worlds, criminal defendants contemplating a guilty plea ought to be advised of all serious collateral consequences of conviction, and surely ought not to be misadvised. The Constitution, however, is not an all-purpose tool for judicial construction of a perfect world; and when we ignore its text in order to make it that, we often find ourselves swinging a sledge where a tack hammer is needed.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees the accused a lawyer “for his defense” against a “criminal prosecutio[n]”—not for sound advice about the collateral consequences of conviction. For that reason, and for the practical reasons set forth in  Justice Alito ’s concurrence, I dissent from the Court’s conclusion that the Sixth Amendment requires counsel to provide accurate advice concerning the potential removal consequences of a guilty plea. For the same reasons, but unlike the concurrence, I do not believe that affirmative misadvice about those consequences renders an attorney’s assistance in defending against the prosecution constitutionally inadequate; or that the Sixth Amendment requires counsel to warn immigrant defendants that a conviction may render them removable. Statutory provisions can remedy these concerns in a more targeted fashion, and without producing permanent, and legislatively irreparable, overkill....
The Court’s holding prevents legislation that could solve the problems addressed by today’s opinions in a more precise and targeted fashion....
An especially important opinion for the lawyers (and future lawyers) who visit this site.