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Lee v. United States

Case Name
Lee v. United States
582 US 357
Unanimous Decision
Authoring Judge
John Roberts
Judge(s) - Majority
John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan
Judge(s) - Dissent
Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito
U.S. Supreme Court
On Review From
6th Circuit
Decision Year


Defendant was indicted for one count of possessing ecstasy with intent to distribute. As a South Korean immigrant, defendant feared conviction would affect his status as a lawful permanent resident. Defendant’s counsel repeatedly explained that the Government would not deport him if he pleaded guilty, and defendant complied. However, since possession with intent to distribute is an aggravated felony under the Immigration and Nationality Act, conviction subjected defendant to mandatory deportation. Defendant moved to vacate the conviction because of ineffective assistance of counsel. The Supreme Court granted the motion because both elements discussed in Strickland v. Washington were satisfied. Counsel fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and caused such prejudice to defendant that—but for the error—he would not have pleaded guilty. The inquiry is fact-specific and requires an assessment of the consequences of a conviction after trial and by plea. Even the smallest chance of success at trial may be attractive enough for a defendant to alter his decision and reject an offer to plea. For immigrant clients like defendant, preserving the right to remain in the United States may be more important than any potential jail sentence. Because trial offered less of a chance of deportation, defendant’s rejection of the plea would not have been irrational.

Key Quote

“But for his attorney’s incompetence, Lee would have known that accepting the plea agreement would certainly lead to deportation. Going to trial? Almost certainly. If deportation were the “determinative issue” for an individual in plea discussions, as it was for Lee; if that individual had strong connections to this country and no other, as did Lee; and if the consequences of taking a chance at trial were not markedly harsher than pleading, as in this case, that “almost” could make all the difference.” p.371