Rodney Class was arrested and charged with federal possession of “readily accessible” firearms on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. He pled guilty to this charge in federal district court. However, in Class’s plea agreement there was no express waiver of Class’s right to appeal his conviction. Class subsequently appealed his conviction on the grounds that the statute violated his Second Amendment right to bear arms and the statute was unconstitutionally vague.
The question before the Court was relatively short. Can Rodney Class appeal his conviction even though he pled guilty? Does the government’s plea agreement inherently bar these claims when making a plea deal or does Class and those like him need to expressly state in their plea agreement that they are reserving the right to appeal on certain grounds?
Class’s main contention in oral argument, argued by Jessica Amunson, is pretty simple. Because Class did not explicitly waive these two appeal charges, he is allowed to use them as an appeal. By the mere fact of pleading guilty, this did not waive those rights.
The government’s argument revolves around Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 11 deals with plea deals and plea agreements. The government citied the Advisory Committee notes of Rule 11, arguing that the writers intended that unconditional pleas of guilty “operate as a waiver of all non-jurisdictional claims. The problem is that Rule 11 has notoriously been amended many times over the years, confusing all courts of its true meaning.
One idea that was thrown around by every party, including the Justices, was the Blackledge-Menna doctrine. Blackledge-Menna are two cases from the 1970s. Class’s argument relies on this doctrine, which stated that criminal defendants were allowed to raise certain constitutional challenges on appeal despite the fact that they had already pled guilty. Blackledge dealt with a vindictive persecution claim and Menna allowed a defendant to bring up a double-jeopardy claim. Class argued that his Second Amendment claim would fall into the same lines as these claims. The government argued that while they do not disagree with Blackledge-Menna, those cases are only applied to those specific claims and the doctrine cannot be broaden.
Blackledge-Menna is not law, it is doctrine. So the Supreme Court traditionally would not want to issue an opinion based on doctrine alone. The Supreme Court likes tests to apply. Class argued that the test should be what Judge Henry Friendly coined many years ago on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. A guilty plea does not waive an appeal of any constitutional ground that would prevent the state from obtaining a valid conviction.
From the transcript of the oral argument, the Justices collectively pushed against the government’s assertions. Justice Breyer’s comments late into the government’s time summed up many of the Justices opinions about when a defendant pleads guilty and the consequences of that plea. Just because a defendant pleads guilty to the crime at hand does not mean that they admit to the statute itself.
“But what you haven’t admitted is that the statute, for example, is a valid statue. You haven’t admitted that. And another thing you haven’t admitted, you haven’t admitted vindictive prosecution because I did it… but they’re prosecuting me for a bad reason, and they can’t do that.”
This is what Class is arguing. He is arguing that while he did possess firearms in a readily accessible area on Capitol grounds, the statute itself that forbids this act is not constitutional. From Justice Breyer’s argument, defendant Class should not be barred from claiming a constitutional violation just by pleading guilty.
Even more of the hardliners on criminal law fell in line with liberal Justice Breyer. Justice Gorsuch stated a similar idea when a defendant pleads guilty “you’re not admitting even to what the statute says; you’re admitting to what’s in the indictment.”
Class’s argument seems pretty solid. Just because a defendant pleads guilty, it shouldn’t bar a constitutional appeal if the plea agreement is silent on the issue. Plea agreements can be extremely broad and cover a lot of ground. There is a whole legal argument if those plea agreements are fair and legal themselves. Regardless, federal and state courts allow the government to offer plea agreements that bar appeals. It’s just a matter of sticking the clause into the agreement itself. In Class’s case, the government did not add a clause into the plea agreement.
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