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Kentucky Supreme Court upholds ethics opinion finding that a waiver of ineffective assistance claims as part of criminal plea bargain violates ethics lawyer rules

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Kentucky Supreme Court opinion which upheld an ethics opinion stating that waiver of ineffective assistance claims as part of plea bargain violates lawyer ethics rules. The opinion is: United States of America v. Kentucky Bar Association, Case No. 2013-SC-000270-KB (August 21, 2014) and is at:

The U.S. Attorney for both the Eastern and Western Districts of Kentucky requested that the Kentucky Supreme Court review Kentucky Bar Association Ethics Opinion E-435, which opined that the use of ineffective assistance of counsel waivers in plea agreements violated the Kentucky Rules of Professional Conduct. The ethics opinion stated that the use of the waivers in plea bargain agreements creates a non-waivable conflict of interest between the defendant and his attorney, limits the attorney’s liability for malpractice, and causes defense counsel to violate the ethics rules.

According to the Kentucky Supreme Court opinion, “(u)nder our ethical rules, ‘(i)t is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:…knowingly assist or induce another (attorney) to” “violate or attempt to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct…. Providing context to the language, knowing is defined as ‘(h)aving or showing awareness or understanding’…and induce is roughly defined as to ‘influence or persuade…’ Prosecutors offering plea agreements with IAC waivers surely violate this rule.”

“Despite any notion of horse trading, plea agreements are often essentially contracts of adhesion. Indeed, in the context of appellate waivers, they have been labeled as such. The plea agreement often comes with a take-it-or leave-it tone. And defense counsel is forced to deal with the provision if offered. Because the prosecutor is aware of our ethical rules, we see little reason why offering a contract of adhesion that requires a fellow attorney to perform unethically in order to comply with other ethical or constitutional obligations would not be “influencing or persuading” a fellow attorney to violate our ethical rules. Contrary to the United States’ assertion, it is not necessary that the prosecutor know defense counsel has been ineffective in order to satisfy the rule. Instead, the plain language of the rule indicates that what is required is for a prosecutor to understand his conduct will result in a fellow attorney violating our ethical rules.”

“(Ethics Opinion) E-435 additionally found the United States plea-bargaining practice violated -3.8 of our ethical rules. As a result of their weighty role in our justice system, -3.8 places special responsibilities on prosecutors. E-435 holds the insertion of IAC waivers in plea agreements violates the “spirit” of -3.8 and prosecutors disregard their role as a “minister of justice” when using such waivers. In truth, prosecutors are expected to be more than “simply…an advocate.” Demanding a defendant waive a potential IAC claim—or, worse, all collateral attack—may provide finality but at too high of a cost. A defendant’s conviction is essentially unappealable as a result of the waiver in question. A prosecutor is charged with “see(ing) that the defendant is accorded procedural justice,” and we simply do not believe the use of IAC waivers lives up to that lofty expectation. Accordingly, we affirm E-435 with respect to prosecutors.”

“We are duty-bound to regulate the legal profession within our borders. Today, we are proactive in that role. Attorneys practicing in this Commonwealth, whether state or federal, must comply with our ethics rules. Accordingly, either defense counsel or prosecutors inserting into plea agreements waivers of collateral attack, including (ineffective assistance of counsel), violates our Rules of Professional Conduct.

Bottom line: This Kentucky Supreme Court opinion confirms that waiver of ineffective assistance claims as part of plea bargain violates Kentucky lawyer ethics rules. Florida Bar Ethics Advisory Opinion 12-1 (2012) reached the same conclusion and also opined that a “prosecutor may not make an offer that requires the defendant to expressly waive ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct because the offer creates a conflict of interest for defense counsel and is prejudicial to the administration of justice.”

Let’s be careful out there.

Disclaimer: this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670
[email protected]

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