After escalating his case to the Supreme Court, a Korean immigrant is waiting for a decision involving a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel. The result will determine whether the petitioner, Jae Lee, gets to keep his permanent resident status.
All of the justices appeared to sympathize with Lee’s predicament after learning how his lawyer had given him wrong counsel, urging him to plead guilty to a drug charge so he would not be deported from the country.
The conservative justices, however, were concerned about writing a decision that would require judges to jump into the minds of defendants to judge whether it would be rational for them to take their case to court knowing with certainty they would lose, or accept a plea deal like Lee did.
During the proceedings, Justice Samuel Alito asked the court, “Is it irrational to climb Mt. Everest without oxygen? I mean, is it irrational to swim with sharks or perform on a tightrope without a net? I mean, I wouldn’t do those things, but people do it. I can’t say they’re irrational. They’re much less risk averse and they value things differently. I think it’s an unmanageable standard.”
Lee, together with his parents, moved from South Korea to Brooklyn, New York when he was 13. They eventually settled in Bartlett, Tennessee, where Lee opened the Mandarin Palace Chinese Restaurant. While his parents eventually became naturalized U.S. citizens, Lee only holds a green card (permanent resident status).
Lee admitted to his recreational use of the drug Ecstasy, but law enforcement officials say his drug use was far more serious and that also dealt Ecstasy and marijuana on the side. In a raid of his townhouse in January 2009, police found 88 pills of Ecstasy, a gun, and $32,000 in cash. Charged with possessing drugs with the intent to distribute, Lee turned to attorney Larry Fitzgerald for legal counsel.
According to Lee, his constant questions about the possibility of being deported supposedly annoyed Fitzgerald, who told him to plead guilty to the drug charge, as going to trial would mean certain defeat. With no knowledge about immigration law, Lee said he had no choice but to rely on his attorney’s promise that entering a plea deal would save him from deportation.
While both parties agree that Lee’s attorney gave him wrong advice, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals pointed out the advice was not prejudicial, as losing the trial would have led to deportation anyway.
Pleading a reversal of the lower court’s decision, Lee’s new attorney John Bursch told the high court that his client would have taken any option, even one that required more time in jail, if it meant not having to be deported back to South Korea.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Lee v. United States, 16-327, by June.
Scenarios like this highlight the importance of hiring an immigration lawyer the moment your case has the potential of affecting your immigration status. For legal counsel in Texas, don’t hesitate to sit down for a consultation with immigration attorney Daniella Lyttle of the Lyttle Law Firm.