Supreme Court Holds That Guilty Plea Does Not Bar Legal Challenge to Constitutionality of Statute of Conviction on Appeal

The Supreme Court recently held that a guilty plea does not bar a federal criminal defendant from challenging the constitutionality of the statute of conviction on direct appeal. In Class v. United States, No. 16-424, _U.S._, 2018 WL 987347 (February 2018), the petitioner, Rodney Class pled guilty to possession of a firearm on U. S. Capitol grounds, in violation of 40 U. S. C. §5104(e). A written plea agreement set forth the terms of Class’ guilty plea, including several categories of rights that he agreed to waive, but it was silent as to the right to challenge on direct appeal the constitutionality of the statute of conviction. After conducting a hearing pursuant to Rule 11(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the District Court accepted Class’ guilty plea and sentenced him. Class then sought to raise his constitutional claims on direct appeal in which he challenged the Government’s power to criminalize his (admitted) conduct, thereby calling into question the Government’s power to “constitutionally prosecute” him. The Court of Appeals held that Class could not do so because, by pleading guilty, he had waived his constitutional claims.

Petitioner, Class, argued that the Supreme Court should apply the precedent set in Blackledge v. Perry and Menna v. New York to his case by holding that a guilty plea does not preclude a constitutional challenge. Respondent, the United States, sought to persuade the Court to adopt a narrow view of what is loosely known as the Menna-Blackledge doctrine. The United States argued that unless the plea agreement expressly preserves defendant’s right to challenge the constitutionality of the convicting statute, the defendant expressly waives this constitutional claim by pleading guilty. The Government conceded that the written plea agreement in this case did not contain the waiver that its argument relied upon.

However, Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, effectively reaffirmed and extended the Menna-Blackledge doctrine, which holds that “a plea of guilty to a charge does not waive a claim that—judged on its face— the charge is one which the State may not constitutionally prosecute.”[1] Of particular importance was the fact that challenging the constitutionality of a convicting statute does not contradict or dispute the terms of the indictment or the written plea agreement.

In light of the fact that circuit courts have been divided on the issue, the Supreme Court clarified the appellate rights of criminal defendants who have pled guilty and subsequently want to challenge the constitutionality of their statute of conviction. The court noted the narrowness of its holding, as it reaffirmed that a guilty plea does implicitly waive some claims, including some constitutional claims.

Although this case will not have far-reaching consequences as there are often no constitutional grounds upon which to challenge the statute of conviction, this case is significant for the defense.

[1] United States v. Broce, 488 U. S. 563, 575 (quoting Menna, supra, at 63, n. 2). Pp. 3–7.