Retroactivity, Strickland, and Alien Criminal Defendants: How the Chaidez Decision Raised More Questions Than It Answered

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When the United States Supreme Court decides to hear a case, it does not grant certiorari simply on the case itself—it chooses to answer a “question presented” by that case. So in Chaidez v. United States, the Court granted certiorari on the question “whether the principle articulated in Padilla [v. Kentucky] applies to persons whose convictions became final before its announcement.” But in answering that question, Chaidez left unanswered—and raised—even more questions.

In the 2010 landmark case Padilla v. Kentucky, the Court declared that defense lawyers must inform noncitizen criminal defendants of the removal consequences of pleading guilty. In the years that followed, federal and state courts grappled with—and ultimately split over—whether Padilla applied only to defendants whose cases were still on direct appeal, or also to those whose convictions were final before Padilla. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Chaidez, and, in an opinion authored by Justice Kagan, upheld the Seventh Circuit’s ruling that Padilla established a “new rule” not available retroactively.

But the Court’s ruling did not address several of the difficult questions that come up in retroactivity analysis, particularly for any rule premised on Strickland v. Washington. It also left many questions open for alien petitioners who seek relief from their convictions. Part I of this Note discusses how the Court has traditionally handled the retroactive application of rules to habeas petitioners and how the issue arose after Padilla. It summarizes the Teague rule for retroactivity and the problem the Padilla decision posed for lower courts determining its retroactive application. Part II discusses the Chaidez decision and notes the various policy and practical concerns implicated (and ignored) in its retroactivity analysis. Part III notes the open questions that persist after Chaidez—particularly for petitioners whose lawyers affirmatively gave them wrong information at the time they pleaded guilty—and examines where the Court may be heading with its recent plea jurisprudence. Finally, Part III also questions how long Teague and Strickland can function together, as new norms in criminal procedure evolve, become prevailing, and ultimately gain recognition from courts.

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