- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004


The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that while people pleading guilty to crimes are entitled to an attorney, judges don’t have to warn them of the disadvantages of not seeing a lawyer.

Justices used the case of an Iowa man convicted of drunken driving to clarify rights under the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, which guarantees legal assistance to those accused of crimes.

In its 9-0 ruling, the court reaffirmed that people facing prison time are entitled to attorneys at critical stages of the process, including a plea hearing.

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said from the bench that the court has not “prescribed any formula or script to be read to a defendant who states that he elects to plead guilty without counsel.”

The high court overturned an Iowa Supreme Court decision that said judges must tell defendants of the disadvantages of pleading guilty without consulting a lawyer.

Justice Ginsburg said states are free to adopt their own rules, but such warnings are not required by the Constitution.

Iowa had appealed the state court’s decision, with the backing of the Bush administration and more than 30 states.

At issue was the case of Felipe Tovar, who didn’t hire a lawyer when he went to court on drunken driving charges — and didn’t get the best deal possible.

Tovar’s lawyer in the Supreme Court case said he should have been advised that his conviction could be kept off his record if he met certain conditions. Instead, that conviction from his days as a student at Iowa State University counted against him later when he was charged with third-offense felony drunken driving.

The Iowa Supreme Court said the first conviction didn’t count because he didn’t knowingly waive his right to an attorney.

Justice Ginsburg, however, said the admonitions the state court required “might cause a defendant to wonder whether the court thinks he has a good defense, when in reality he does not.”

The justices sent Tovar’s case back to Iowa for more consideration.

In other action yesterday, the court:

• Ruled that prosecutors were wrong to use a wife’s taped statement to police at her husband’s trial. The court unanimously overturned the man’s conviction for assaulting an acquaintance he said tried to rape his wife.

• Asked the Bush administration for its views on a securities-fraud lawsuit filed by investors accusing a drug company of improperly inflating its stock prices.

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