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US top court backs S. Korean immigrant who got bad legal advice

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The US Supreme Court ruled Friday that immigrants can get another shot in court if deported after their lawyers advise them to plead guilty.

The top court’s ruling in a case involving a South Korean could have major ramifications in a country where the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved with guilty, not guilty or no contest pleas, and at a time when President Donald Trump’s administration seeks to stricter enforcement of immigration rules.

In a 6-2 vote, the justices backed Jae Lee, a South Korean immigrant who opened two restaurants in Memphis, Tennessee and emigrated to the United States in 1982 when he was 13.

Lee was arrested in 2009 after police found 88 ecstasy tablets in his home. He was arrested for possession of the drug with the intent to distribute it. The felony crime almost automatically leads to deportation if the suspect is convicted.

Lee’s attorney at the time, Larry Fitzgerald, convinced him to plead guilty to avoid a likely prison sentence. Lee got a relatively lenient sentence of one year and one day as part of a plea deal.

Fitzgerald erroneously advised his client that even though he was not a US citizen, he would not be deported after serving his sentence due to his previously clean record over three decades in the country.

Lee later insisted that he would not have pleaded guilty had he known it would trigger deportation.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said there was “substantial and uncontroverted evidence” that Lee would not have taken the plea deal.

“But for his attorney’s incompetence, Lee would have known that accepting the plea agreement would certainly lead to deportation,” Roberts said, while noting however that Lee likely would have been convicted anyway had he gone to trial.

The court’s newest member, Neil Gorsuch, did not participate in the decision.

The ruling was part of several immigration-related cases before the justices this term. They are expected to indicate in the coming days whether they will examine Trump’s controversial travel ban.

Roberts said the court would deliver its last decisions for the annual term Monday. The next term begins in October.

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