• Dolores Sinistaj

SCOTUS Update: Class v. United States


On October 4, 2017 The Supreme Court heard the oral argument for Class v. United States, a case regarding whether a Petitioner has waived their right to appeal a conviction solely because of plea bargaining itself. However, applying the court’s Blackedge-Menna doctrine, a defendant who has pleaded guilty can “challenge his conviction on any constitutional ground that, if asserted before trial, would forever preclude the State from obtaining a valid conviction against him.” Here the petitioner’s claim is that both the Due Process Clause and Second Amendment preclude the government from obtaining a valid conviction against him, thus, falling “within the scope of the Blackedge-Menna doctrine.” The contention in this case is that the double jeopardy and prosecutorial vindictiveness claim were not explicitly waived in the plea agreement. They were “not otherwise forfeited by operation of the plea itself.”

Justice Alito raises the question of whether a right that is protected through an interlocutory appeal falls within the Blackedge-Menna doctrine. Justice Alito points to the speech or debate clause claim, which permits an interlocutory appeal. Petitioner argues that if the speech or debate clause would forever preclude the government from obtaining a conviction against him, then yes, it falls within the Blackedge-Menna doctrine. Petitioner further argues that if the constitutional violation is not clear on the face of the admission, then the doctrine would not hold.

Justice Sotomayor asks if a substantive and continuing conspiracy crime were committed in 1991, where the Defendant pleads guilty and says they did commit the substantive crime in 1991 and participated in the conspiracy, is subject to the Blackedge-Menna line of cases. In other words, “would the defendant then be saying that that was unconstitutional on appeal?” Petitioner argues yes because when making the plea, the defendant would have to admit certain facts that the defendant would then have to on appeal.

Petitioner argues that if a defendant pleads guilty to a crime and admits elements 1, 2, and 3 but not 4 because 4 was left out, then the defendant would not be able to raise that on appeal since the defendant is pleading to substantive crime. Petitioner believes it would not be permissible for a defendant to try and come back on appeal and contradict the admissions made in pleading guilty. This “would not be permissible under the Tollett and Brady category of cases.

Justice Ginsburg asks Petitioner for their position on what the Court said in the Broce case. The Court specifically asks if, “a plea, and conviction under it, comprehends all factual and legal elements necessary to sustain a binding final judgment.” The petitioner agrees that a defendant’s pleas do “encompass the factual and legal elements to sustain the conviction.” However, petitioner points out that the Court in Broce recognized that there are exceptions “where on the face of the record the Court had no power to enter the conviction.”

Here, Petitioner explains that the question is what does the defendant implicitly concede by pleading guilty? Petitioner explains that if the defendant says they are guilty of the offense they were charged with, the Constitution precludes the conviction because of the double jeopardy clause and the due process clause, then the Court, following Broce, has no power to enter the conviction or impose the sentence. As Justice Kennedy simplifies it, petitioner believes that the Court has no power to do this because it was not expressly waived. The question becomes how Rule 11 is interpreted and how this plea agreement is viewed in light of Rule 11. Is something waived by operation of the plea itself?

Petitioner argues that while you can implicitly concede some things, which “are your procedural and evidentiary objections like the Fourth Amendment and Fifth Amendment” you can “still reserve after a plea of guilty a class of claims that would go to whether the Constitution would bar your conviction.” In totality, Petitioner feels that any issue that would have been decided at trial is foreclosed, unless there has been an explicit statement in the plea agreement.

Opposing counsel, Feigin, argues that “we’re not trying to interpret Blackedge and Menna in a vacuum, but it’s refracted through the lens of Rule 11(a)(2).” Respondent continues to say that drafters of Rule 11(a)(2) “were a little confused by Blackedge and Menna.” Respondent argues that the drafters of Rule11(a)(2) purposefully produced this broad rule so that it would apply not only to claims like the one in this case, but also to the claim that a defendant might want to bring after pleading guilty, including, Fourth and Fifth Amendment claims. The drafters " concluded that the proper way to preserve those claims was to make clear to the government and to the Court ahead of time that that was going to be something that was reserved in the defendant's plea." Respondent does not feel that there is any reason to believe drafters of Rule 11(a)(2) intended to create another exception for the kinds of claims at issue in this case.

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