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Penn Law Students Help Win Supreme Court Case Padilla v. Kentucky

March 31, 2010

University of Pennsylvania Law School students’ work on the Supreme Court case, Padilla v. Kentucky has resulted in the Court ruling in their favor. The Supreme Court decision means that lawyers must tell non-citizen criminal defendants whether pleading guilty to a crime could lead to their deportation.

“For the many, many non-citizens caught up in the American criminal justice system, there’s a very important point of making sure they know what they’re getting into,” says Professor Stephanos Bibas.
Jose Padilla, a legal permanent U.S. resident who lived in the United States for 40 years, had been wrongly told by his attorney that although he wasn’t a citizen, he would not be deported if he pleaded guilty to a drug charge.
“This is a historic decision,” said Stephen Kinnaird, Penn Law lecturer and partner of the Washington, DC law firm, Paul Hastings, who argued the case on behalf of Padilla.” The Court has now recognized that the lawyer’s duties have evolved with the increased intertwining of criminal and immigration law.”
Professor Bibas and students in his Supreme Court Clinic helped shape the arguments for the case, which tests the limits of the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of effective assistance of counsel for non-citizen criminal defendants. Bibas says, “There were students volunteering as we were getting the Clinic set up, to go off and do research on these different things. How many non-citizens are going to be affected, and for what kinds of things will they be affected? How many times are they not getting the right information from their lawyers?”
The ruling will have a tremendous impact on criminal cases against non-citizens. “The defense lawyer has to be effective in warning you about this major thing that’s looming and on the horizon,” says Bibas. “The defense lawyer has to tell the client, ‘This crime carries automatic deportation’ and maybe where it’s not so automatic, warn him ‘there’s a possibility of deportation here, and you need to talk with someone about it for more details.’”
The students researched state laws to see whether there are differences concerning the ethical obligations attorneys have when advising clients on the consequences that a guilty plea might have on immigration status. “The students got to watch us bring together more than half a dozen amici from different perspectives from the American Bar Assn, immigrants’ rights groups, criminal defense groups, each of which wrote a brief that told a different story,” Bibas says. “The Supreme Court’s opinion relied on these different perspectives, examples and stories of people who’ve been hurt by laws and courts being insensitive to this problem. Another big part was an argument that Clinical Supervisor and Lecturer Yolanda Vazquez first pioneered, which is telling the whole story about how immigration used to be separate from the criminal process and yet over the last two decades, it’s become more and more interwoven, such that you can’t realistically say that a criminal defense lawyer can ignore deportation. It’s triggered automatically by certain convictions.”

In October, students were at the Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in the case. “Penn is very fortunate to be partnered with excellent lawyers who allow us to leverage our own abilities and for our students see top notch advocacy at work,” Bibas says. “It’s great for the students to be able to watch the laws as they’re being made. It’s a capstone to their third year of legal education. It’s something they can get here that not many law students have an opportunity to do.”