The Third Circuit took the unusual step of declaring a Supreme Court opinion (Padilla v. Kentucky, 130 S.Ct. 1473 (2010)) retroactively applicable to defedants filing habeas corpus motions. The case is United States v. Orocio and the opinion can be found here.

For those who do not regularly follow post-conviction and habeas cases, federal courts rarely find that Supreme Court apply to anyone beyond direct appeal. Indeed, if a Supreme Court decides a case and it is considered a “new rule” then there is virtually no chance that prisoners past direct appeal can benefit from the Court’s ruling.

The Third Circuit held that the Padilla does not constitute a “new rule” and therefore it applies to all defendants, even those long since sentenced. The Court said:

Padilla followed from the clearly established principles of the guarantee of effective assistance of counsel. Strickland and Hill required counsel to advise criminal defendants at the plea stage in accordance with precedent and prevailing professional norms to ensure that the defendant makes an informed, knowing, and voluntary decision whether to plead guilty. Padilla is set within the confines of Strickland and Hill, as it concerns what advice an attorney must give to a criminal defendant at the plea stage. When Mr. Orocio pled guilty, it was “hardly novel” for counsel to provide advice to defendants at the plea stage concerning the immigration consequences of a guilty plea, undoubtedly an “important decision” for a defendant. See Padilla, 130 S. Ct. at 1485 (“For at least the past 15 years, professional norms have generally imposed an obligation on counsel to provide advice on the

[removal] consequences of a client’s plea.”). Padilla “merely clarified the law as it applied to the particular facts of that case.” Cf. Lewis, 359 F.3d at 655. We therefore hold that Padilla “broke no new ground in holding the duty to consult also extended to counsel’s obligation to advise the defendant” of the immigration consequences of a guilty plea and “did not ‘yield[ ] a result so novel that it forge[d] a new rule.’” See id. at 657, 655 (alterations in original).

This is an important case for prisoners because it offers an avenue for them to challenge faulty and ill-informed plea bargains, especially in cases where the attorney never informed them that by pleading guilty, they would be deported.