The U.S. Supreme Court declined on Wednesday to apply retroactively a 2010 ruling that requires lawyers to tell clients who are not citizens that they can be deported if they plead guilty to certain criminal offenses.
The 7-2 decision was a defeat for thousands of immigrants who might have been able to withdraw guilty pleas in cases alleging ineffective counsel. These cases predated the court's 2010 ruling that immigrants should be told some consequences of guilty pleas.
Federal appeals courts had split on whether that ruling should apply retroactively.
In Wednesday's majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said that the March 2010 Padilla v. Kentucky ruling did not apply to cases that were already final after an appeal.
She wrote that it would not have been apparent to a typical judge before that ruling that the Sixth Amendment right to a competent lawyer extended to advising immigrants about deportation risks.
"So when we decided Padilla, we answered a question about the Sixth Amendment's reach that we had left open, in a way that altered the law of most jurisdictions," she wrote.
Under court precedent, such a shift in the law does not apply to defendants whose convictions became final before the ruling came down, she added.
Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in the judgment, saying he believed the Padilla case was decided incorrectly and that the Sixth Amendment does not require criminal defense lawyers to warn non-citizen clients of the immigration consequences of a guilty plea.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying that the 2010 decision was not as unexpected as Kagan claimed, in part due to changes in the way lawyers are trained about the impact of immigration laws on their clients.
"The only difference from prior law was that the underlying professional norms had changed such that counsel's failure to give this advice now amounted to a constitutionally deficient performance," she wrote. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Sotomayor's dissenting opinion.
The case before the court involved Roselva Chaidez, a Mexican citizen and lawful permanent U.S. resident in Chicago who the government in 2009 ordered removed from the country in light of her guilty plea six years earlier for mail fraud in an automobile insurance scheme.
Chaidez had disclosed the plea while trying unsuccessfully to become a naturalized citizen. She said the removal was unfair because her lawyer in the criminal case had never told her that she could be deported for pleading guilty.
On appeal in August 2011, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago found that Padilla introduced a new constitutional rule of law and therefore could not be applied retroactively.
The U.S. government had argued that the 7th Circuit was correct. Twenty-eight U.S. states endorsed this position, fearing demands by thousands of aliens to withdraw their guilty pleas could bottle up courthouses, and often lead to new trials or outright freedom for admitted criminals.
Wednesday's decision will likely control the outcome in several other immigration cases that had been awaiting Supreme Court review while the Chaidez case was pending.
Chaidez's lawyer could not be reached immediately for comment.
The case is Chaidez v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-820.