Decision on informing clients of deportation risks is not retroactive, court rules

By Marcia Coyle


A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring criminal defense attorneys to inform noncitizen clients of the deportation risks of guilty pleas is not retroactive, the justices held on Wednesday.


Justice Elena Kagan, writing for a 7-2 majority in Chaidez v. U.S., said the court’s 2010 decision in Padilla v. Kentucky announced a “new rule,” and under the court’s retroactivity analysis, a person whose conviction was final before the 2010 decision cannot benefit from a new rule of criminal procedure on collateral review.


Padilla was a 7-2 decision authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, whom Kagan succeeded. It grounded its holding in the Sixth Amendment and Strickland v. Washington, the 1984 test for ineffective assistance of counsel.


The “new rule” retroactivity analysis was announced by the court in its 1989 decision, Teague v. Lane. Teague holds that a case announces a new rule if the result was not dictated by precedent existing at the time a defendant’s conviction became final. A case does not announce a new rule if it is simply an application of the principle that governed a prior decision to a different set of facts.


Rosa Chaidez was a Mexican immigrant who became a lawful permanent resident of the United States in 1977. Twenty years later, she pleaded guilty to mail fraud in connection with a scheme to defraud an auto insurance company of $26,000. Her conviction was final in 2004.


Under federal immigration law, her offense was an aggravated felony, which subjected her to immediate deportation. She claimed her attorney never advised her of that fact. Immigration officials moved to deport her in 2009 after her citizenship application alerted them to her prior conviction. Chaidez filed a writ of coram nobis in federal court seeking to overturn her conviction based on ineffective assistance of counsel. While her writ was pending, the Supreme Court decided Padilla.


In analyzing whether Padilla announced a new rule, Kagan wrote that “garden-variety” applications of the Strickland test for ineffective assistance of counsel claims do not produce new rules. But Padilla, she said, “did something more.”


“In other words, prior to asking how the Strickland test applied, Padilla asked whether the Strickland test applied,” she explained. That preliminary question about Strickland, she added, “came to the Padilla Court unsettled—so that the Court’s answer (‘Yes, Strickland governs here’) required a new rule.”


Padilla answered a question about the Sixth Amendment’s reach “in a way that altered the law of most jurisdictions—and our reasoning reflected that we were doing as much,” she wrote.


Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented, saying, the majority was wrong “because Padilla did nothing more than apply the existing rule of Strickland v. Washington in a new setting, the same way the Court has done repeatedly in the past: by surveying the relevant professional norms and concluding that they unequivocally required attorneys to provide advice about the immigration consequences of a guilty plea.”


Sotomayor suggested that “what truly drives the majority’s analysis is its sense that Padilla occasioned a serious disruption in lower court decisional reasoning.” The Padilla concurring and dissenting opinions similarly reflected that sense, she added.


However, Kagan responded by writing that the Padilla concurring and dissenting opinions “were on to something when they described the line the Court was crossing. One need not agree with any of the separate opinions’ criticisms of Padilla to concur with their view that it modified governing law.”


Elizabeth Wydra of the Constitutional Accountability Center, who filed an amicus brief supporting Chaidez, called the decision “disappointing,” adding, “When the Padilla court applied the Supreme Court’s standard analysis of whether certain conduct by the attorney fell below the constitutionally required minimum of effective assistance of counsel, it was simply applying established law to a new factual situation.”


But Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, who filed a brief supporting the government, countered in a statement: “In the Padilla case, the Supreme Court overturned well-settled law to create a new ground to attack final criminal judgments. While this is arguably a desirable change for the future, it should not overturn decades of judgments properly entered under the law in effect at the time. This is particularly true in a case such as this one, which would have potentially voided the convictions of thousands of aliens who pled guilty to avoid a longer sentence.”