In 2007, Kempess Sylvain, a noncitizen lawfully residing in Massachusetts, was arrested and subsequently pled guilty to a charge of drug possession. Before pleading guilty, Sylvain expressed concerns of being deported due to a previous threat of deportation resulting from an earlier criminal incident. Only after his lawyer specifically advised him that “his disposition was not likely to result in his deportation,” did Sylvain plead guilty. The advice his lawyer gave him was wrong, however, and Sylvain’s guilty plea immediately placed him in deportation proceedings.
The United States Supreme Court recognized the significant problem that immigrants face when they are not advised properly about the chance of deportation before pleading guilty. In 2010, the Court held in Padilla v. Kentucky that counsel has a Sixth Amendment duty to warn their clients that they could face deportation after pleading guilty. However, the Supreme Court further clarified in Chaidez v. United States that the Padilla duty to warn of potential deportation consequences “did not apply retroactively to people whose convictions had become final by the time the justices announced the decision.” Because Sylvain filed a motion to vacate his conviction of ineffective assistance of counsel before the Supreme Court decided Chaidez, it appeared that he would be out of luck.
However, on September 13, 2013, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held in Commonwealth v. Sylvain that the Sixth Amendment duty to warn in Padilla applied retroactively to state law convictions made final after April 1, 1997. The Supreme Judicial Court reasoned that Padilla did not create a new rule, but simply expanded on the constitutional standard of effective counsel and “reflected changes in immigration law.” The court supported its narrower interpretation of Padilla with the Supreme Court’s previous decision in Danforth v. Minnesota, where the Supreme Court ruled that state courts have the final authority to evaluate state convictions that violated federal rights.
What exactly are the implications of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s recent decision?
The decision illustrates a state court separating itself from the United States Supreme Court by reaching its own independent and contrary interpretation of Padilla. Specifically, Padilla is not a new rule and consequently should apply retroactively. It represents the fundamental American federalism principle that states have their own legal powers separate from the federal government.
Currently, United States immigrants feel desperation waiting for immigration reform. For example, a few days before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided Sylvain’s case, police arrested over 100 women in DC who protested the delay of the House of Representatives in enacting proposed immigration legislation. However, the Sylvain decision instills hope to immigrants that some of the injustice they endured will be alleviated. With the Massachusetts court’s decision, many immigrants will be able to challenge state convictions if they were not properly advised of the deportation risks of their guilty pleas. Thus, they will have a chance to avoid deportation. For immigrants like Sylvain, who arrived in the United States as a teenager and has all of his family here, avoiding deportation probably is more important than going to jail. It is crucial that immigrants do not suffer from the consequences of inaccurate legal advice.
Massachusetts is not the only state to pass a retroactivity decision and with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s recent decision, perhaps more states will depart from the Supreme Court’s decision in Chaidez. Only time will tell if other state courts will continue to follow Padilla or instead rule similarly to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, but at least one more state has attempted to right a significant wrong that severely impacts immigrants’ lives. Hopefully immigrants can feel a sense of hope for more positive legal changes in the near future.