Supreme Court Rules Guilty Pleas No Longer Bar Appeals

In the eyes of many lawyers, a guilty plea means the end of a case. Once the defendant accepts guilt and the court assigns a punishment, it’s time to file away any relevant documents, send out the final bills and move on to the next case. A recent Supreme Court decision, Class v. United States, No. 16-424, might change that.

According to the New York Times, some cases may still be appealed after a guilty plea is submitted. The justices voted 6-to-3 in favor of defendant Rodney Class’s right to appeal. Class had pled guilty to a crime after carrying guns and ammunition onto the National Capitol’s grounds. The weapons and ammo were in Class’s car.

Class originally pled guilty as part of a plea bargain. These deals, considered controversial by many, keep cases flowing through the justice system. Many prosecutors have argued it’s impossible to take every alleged criminal to trial. Plea bargains offer reduced punishment in exchange for an admission of guilt. Defendants benefit from lenient sentencing, and the state benefits by avoiding long, costly trials. Critics argue defendants are forced into the deals by impossibly high bail amounts and fears of vindictive sentencing by judges.

Before the Supreme Court’s ruling, accepting a plea bargain meant it was impossible to appeal. Now, defendants like Class will be able to appeal guilty pleas on constitutional bargains. Class had tried to argue he had a Second Amendment right to his firearms. The appeals court had denied his right to appeal the case.

Justice Breyer wrote the majority opinion. Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch and Chief Justice Roberts joined him. Justices Kennedy, Thomas and Alito dissented.