Supreme Court’s decision based on reality in court systems in Michigan

Guest Editorial
In many ways, Anthony Cooper is no different from the thousands of people who stream through the court system in Jackson and all off Michigan each year. He did wrong and was offered a deal from prosecutors in exchange for his guilty plea. If he had accepted, he’d be like 95 percent of the criminal defendants who face justice.

Cooper veered from the norm, however, not only by rejecting that deal, but for doing so for a bad reason. He had fired a gun at another person, and his attorney told him he couldn’t be convicted of attempted murder because he shot his victim below the waist. The advice was wrong.

Cooper was found guilty in Wayne County and went to prison for far longer than if he had simply taken the deal.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that was unfair. It overturned Cooper’s conviction and found — in what experts say is a landmark case — that defendants have a right to adequate legal counsel when it comes to plea agreements.

The decision is controversial. The Constitution does not make any promises when it comes to plea agreements, and four of the nine Supreme Court justices dissented from this ruling. However, the majority found plea agreements are so common that defendants need competent help before they strike a deal.

The logic makes sense. While unpopular with some, plea agreements are the grease that keeps courts running. Many high-stakes cases go to trial, but the vast majority end in pleas. A criminal admits guilt, and the prosecutor promises to drop the most serious charge, or seek a lesser sentence. It can happen in traffic cases. It can happen with murders.

If it didn’t, the courts simply would not work. The time and cost of taking most cases to a trial before a judge or jury would be overwhelming. There would not be enough judges, prosecutors or defense attorneys to handle every case, not without years of delays.

Still, if the courts rely on plea agreements to function, the process of reaching those pleas should protect individuals’ rights. Most criminal defendants are not legal experts and rely on their attorneys to tell them the truth, to steer them in the right direction, before they agree to admit guilt.

We doubt this would open the door to a rash of overturned cases. The Supreme Court did set out to protect people who simply make a bad choice and lose at trial, rather than accept a plea offer. But it did say those people deserve to make a decision without being misled by their attorneys.

That’s fair, and we expect the wheels of justice to keep turning.