A group of legal ethics professors and practitioners together with five law school ethics centers filed an amicus brief last week in a pending U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Davila. The brief emphasizes federal appellate courts’ supervisory authority to set and enforce standards governing federal trial judges’ conduct in criminal cases.
Here’s an overview of what happened in the case: Davila sought a new lawyer, complaining that his appointed lawyer was pressuring him to plead guilty without considering alternatives. The magistrate judge dismissed Davila’s complaint out of hand, endorsed the advice given by the defense lawyer (who happened to be his former law clerk), and encouraged Davila to plead guilty and cooperate with the government – in the magistrate judge’s infelicitous words, to “come to the cross” – in order to get a reduced sentence. Davila pled guilty several months later. Before sentencing, Davila decided to represent himself (despite questions about his mental capacity) and sought to vacate his guilty plea, but he never specifically identified the magistrate judge’s coercive conduct as one of his reasons. The issue was first raised by the court of appeals on its own, where the government conceded that, at the very least, the magistrate judge violated a Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure forbidding judges from participating in plea bargaining. The appellate court reversed the conviction on this ground. The government now argues that the reversal was improper under the Federal Rules without a finding that the magistrate judge’s exhortation influenced the defendant's guilty plea.
The amicus brief filed by the legal ethicists addresses a different source of authority – the appellate court’s supervisory authority over lower federal courts – to which the government has given short shrift. The legal ethicists argue that, wholly apart from the federal criminal procedure rules, the magistrate judge’s conduct violated a canon of judicial ethics as well as standards of judicial conduct established in case law pursuant to courts' supervisory authority, and that the federal appellate court could enforce these standards based on the magistrate judge’s inherently coercive conduct without an inquiry into the extent of its impact on the defendant’s decision to plead guilty.
You can read the full amicus brief at the website for the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham University School of Law.
ScotusBlog coverage of the case is here.
The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case on April 15, 2013.
(Disclaimer, I am one of the law professors who signed onto the amicus brief as is another of our bloggers here at the LEF, Richard Painter.)