WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court showed little enthusiasm Monday for reopening the cases of criminal defendants who lost out on good plea deals based on bad advice or bungling by their lawyers.

In the past, the court has said that criminal defendants not only have a right to a lawyer, but also have a right to reopen their cases if a lawyer’s bungling denied them a right to a fair trial.

These days, however, about 95 percent of crime cases are resolved through a plea deal, not a trial. At issue in two cases Monday was whether to extend the right to competent legal advice to plea deals.
Most of the justices made clear they were reluctant to give defendants a new trial or a shorter prison term because they missed out on a favorable plea deal due to their lawyer’s mistakes.

“It was the defendant’s choice, not the lawyer’s choice” to plead guilty, Chief Justice John Roberts told one advocate.

One case from Missouri involved a lawyer who failed to tell his client of a good deal. Gailin Frye was charged with driving with a revoked license, and a prosecutor offered Frye’s public defender a deal: Plead guilty to a misdemeanor, and he would recommend 90 days in jail.

The lawyer failed to tell Frye of the offer. And a few months later, Frye pleaded guilty to a felony and received three years in prison. In the interim, however, he had also been arrested again for driving without a license.

His new lawyer argued that as a matter of “fundamental fairness,” Frye’s guilty plea should be voided.
“Why? Why is it unfair for the law to apply to this individual the punishment he deserved for the crime he committed?” asked Justice Antonin Scalia.

He and other justices stressed there is “no right to a plea deal.” And they noted the judge would have insisted on a longer term for Frye because of his multiple convictions.

The second case involved a Michigan man who passed up a deal that would have sent him to prison for four to seven years for shooting a woman four times in her lower body.