From NBC's Pete Williams
By a surprisingly strong 7-2 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in favor of a non-citizen immigrant, finding that his lawyer's advice was so bad that it violated his constitutional right to a fair trial.
The man, a native of Honduras named Jose Padilla (no relation to the terrorism case subject), has lived in the U.S. for more than 40 years and fought in the American military in Vietnam. In September 2001, he agreed to haul almost 1,000 pounds of marijuana, but his cargo was discovered at a truck weigh station in Kentucky and he was arrested. His lawyer advised him to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of five years in prison.
The lawyer told Padilla that he did not need to worry about jeopardizing his immigration status, since he had been in the U.S. for so long. That turned out to be bad advice, because the U.S. sought to have him deported.
Today, the court held that criminal defense lawyers must not only advise their non-citizen clients of the legal punishments that flow from pleading guilty, but also of the risk of deportation. In Padilla's case, the court said, the terms of the immigration law were "succinct, clear and explicit" in defining the consequences of pleading guilty.
While seven justices ruled in Padilla's favor, two of them -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito -- didn't go as far as the majority on the duty of defense lawyers. They said a lawyer is required only to warn a defendant that a guilty plea could adversely affect their immigration status and that they should therefore consult an immigration lawyer.