Can a person who pleads guilty to a crime later challenge his conviction on the grounds that the criminal statute he was charged and convicted under is unconstitutional? On Wednesday, the Supreme Court said yes, in a decision that upends an important assumption of federal criminal procedure.
For decades, lower federal courts have held that by pleading guilty, a criminal defendant waives the right to raise most substantive and procedural claims on appeal. This rule has long reassured federal prosecutors that the guilty pleas, which make up of 95 percent of criminal case dispositions in U.S. district courts, will not generate complicated constitutional appeals. The Supreme Court's decision this week in Rodney Class v. United States may thus shift some of the focus of federal criminal practice, which is now heavily based on negotiating plea agreements, back toward litigation.
Writing for an ideologically unusual majority (composed of the Court's four Democratic-appointed justices plus Republican appointees Neil Gorsuch and John Roberts), Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that Class's claims "challenge the Government's power to criminalize [his] (admitted) conduct. They thereby call into question the Government's power to 'constitutionally prosecute' him. A guilty plea does not bar a direct appeal in these circumstances." Breyer argued that principle has deep roots in American law, citing decisions as far back as 1860.
Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito dissented from the opinion.
This result is unlikely to actually free the petitioner, Rodney Class. Class was arrested in 2013 after bringing firearms onto the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, in violation of federal law. According to The Wall Street Journal, "Mr. Class told FBI agents that 'he was a 'Constitutional Bounty Hunter' and a 'Private Attorney General' who traveled the nation with guns and other weapons to enforce federal criminal law against judges whom he believed had acted unlawfully.'"
On appeal, Class wishes to raise the claim that the law against bringing firearms onto Capitol grounds violates the Second Amendment and the Due Process clause. He will now be able to do so, but under current Second Amendment precedents in the D.C. Circuit, where his appeal will be heard, it is unlikely that those claims will succeed.
But whether or not the ruling frees Rodney Class, it may require a revision of the federal plea colloquy, a largely scripted exchange between judge and defendant that must take place before the entry of a guilty plea. Toward the end of the colloquy—which can take as long as 30 minutes, depending on the judge—the defendant is asked whether he understands that by pleading guilty, he is waiving all possible appellate claims except for newly discovered evidence, ineffective assistance of counsel, and illegality of the sentence. The decision in Class will probably require, at minimum, an additional caveat during that portion of the colloquy.