Courthouse Steps Decision: Class v. United States

Criminal Law & Procedure Practice Group Teleforum

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Rodney Class was arrested in May of 2013 when he violated federal law for possession of three firearms on the United States Capitol Grounds. Class pleaded guilty in the district court, but then later appealed his case to the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on constitutional grounds. The D.C. Circuit court held that he was guilty because of his guilty plea on the district court level and ruled that his previous plea barred him from appealing his guilt on constitutional grounds at the appellate level.

In a 6-3 opinion, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the decision of the D.C. Circuit. Justice Breyer wrote in the majority opinion that a guilty plea does not in fact bar a defendant from raising appeals based on constitutional grounds. Justice Alito authored a dissent, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy, which criticized the majority for reaching a decision that has no clear basis in the Constitution.

Will Haun joins us to discuss the decision and its potential implications.


Will Haun, Attorney, Shearman & Sterling LLP


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Event Transcript

Wesley Hodges:              Welcome to The Federalist Society's Practice Group Podcast. The following podcast, hosted by the Federalist Society's Criminal Law & Procedure Practice Group, was recorded on Thursday, March 1st, 2018 during a live Teleforum conference call held exclusively for Federalist Society members.

                                         Welcome to The Federalist Society's Teleforum conference call. This afternoon's topic is a Courthouse Steps discussion on the decision in Class v. United States, which was decided by the Supreme Court on February 21st. My name is Wesley Hodges, and I'm the Associate Director of Practice Groups at The Federalist Society. As always, please note that all expressions of opinion are those of the expert on today's call.

                                         Today, we are fortunate to have with us Will Haun, who's an attorney at Shearman & Sterling LLP. After our speaker's remarks, we'll open for audience Q&A. Thank you for speaking with us today, Will. The floor is yours.

Will Haun:                        Thank you very much, Wes. Good afternoon, everyone. It's always a privilege to speak with other members of The Federalist Society, and I thank you very much for your time.

                                         I'm here to talk today about the Supreme Court's recent decision in Rodney Class versus United States. This was released on Wednesday. There very briefly, the Supreme Court decided that Rodney Class's guilty plea did not automatically preclude his challenge to the constitutionality of the statute under which his was convicted.

                                         The majority opinion is a relatively brief opinion. It's a 10-page-or-so discussion by Justice Stephen Breyer that concludes that this holding flows directly from the court's prior decisions. Justice Samuel Alito's dissent, which was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, at various points describes the majority opinion as incoherent and a muddle, and indeed the opinion provides no definitive answer regarding what kinds of appellate claims a guilty plea that lacks explicit waivers of appeal will allow. Nevertheless, the opinion makes clear that in these circumstances, that is Class' circumstances, there was neither an express nor implicit waiver of his right to appeal and that absent any such waiver, challenges to the constitutionality of the statute of conviction will be allowed.

                                         With that opening, I would like to begin with a brief factual background so our people are familiar with the underlying facts of the case, and then I will discuss both the majority opinion and the key points from the majority opinion and the dissenting opinion, and then would be happy to take questions.

                                         In terms of the facts, before Rodney Class had pled guilty to possessing a firearm on the US Capitol grounds, he had filed pro se motions to dismiss his case alleging that the governing criminal statute, which prohibited the possession of a firearm on US Capitol grounds, violated the Second Amendment. He also claimed that the signage at the parking lot where he had parked his car with guns inside denied him fair notice under the Constitution's due process clause. These motions were denied, and Class pled guilty several months later. The written plea agreement that was drafted by the government did not contain any express waiver of Class' right to appeal his conviction, and the district judge's colloquy left the waiver question open.

                                         Certainly, a guilty plea waiver always waives appellate claims regarding various constitutional rights, such as the right to a jury trial or defects in plea proceedings, and there were some explicit waivers within Class' plea agreement. But the scope of the permitted appeal when an express waiver is absent is debatable. Here, when Class did appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, the DC Circuit ruled that Class' guilty plea had implicitly waived his constitutional challenges.

                                         By a six to three vote, the Supreme Court reversed that judgment. The Supreme Court described the question as, "Whether a guilty plea by itself bars a federal criminal defendant from challenging the constitutionality of the offense in the statute." The court's opinion holds that Class did not relinquish his right to appeal the district court's constitutional determinations simply by pleading guilty. The court claimed that this holding flows directly from this court's prior decisions, but frankly, the court's opinions spends more time on why decisions of federal and state courts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as most prominently an 1869 opinion from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, supports its position.

                                         This might be because the two Supreme Court decisions that provide the closest source of authority for today's decision are themselves anomalous, and at least one subsequent Supreme Court decision has confined their reach. These two Supreme Court decisions are Blackledge versus Perry and Menna versus New York. They were decided within a year of each other more than 40 years ago, but the court today takes the position that these decisions mean "a plea of guilty to a charge does not waive a claim that judged on its face the charges one in which the state may not constitutionally prosecute."

                                         Later on, the court says that in a case called Broce, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the so-called Blackledge-Menna doctrine and refined it scope. Now it seems rather than set forth a general statement about the sort of right a guilty plea cannot waive, the court says that Class' claims here fell within the Blackledge-Menna doctrine because they do not contradict the terms of the indictment or written plea agreement. They are consistent with Class' knowing, voluntary, and intelligent admission that he did what the indictment alleged. Those claims can be resolved without any need to venture beyond the record.

                                         The court's opinion here repeatedly refers to the circumstances of Class' challenge, perhaps indicating that it's holding today is more fact-specific than the court suggested by the way it framed the question it presented. Indeed, the court then spends much of the opinion's remainder trying to clarify what kinds of claims, even constitutional claims, a valid guilty plea renders irrelevant and thereby prevents the defendant from appealing, referring occasionally again to the circumstances of Class' particular challenges as somehow distinguishing features of his claims against his valid guilty plea.

                                         It's therefore hard to disagree, I think, with Justice Alito's dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Kennedy and Thomas, that criticizes the court for providing no clear answer as to the claims that a defendant can raise on an appeal after entering an unconditional guilty plea, the question presented. Justice Alito catalogs the no fewer than five rules for ascertaining the issues that can be raised in challenging a valid guilty plea on appeal given today's decision. His dissent notes that it is anybody's guess as to how these rules fit together and whether the court's holding is based on the Constitution or some other ground. This muddle, as Justice Alito calls it, will bedevil the lower courts, which is no small concern in this context as roughly 95% of felony cases in the federal and state courts are resolved by guilty pleas.

                                         But the dissent does more than simply criticize the court's opacity. Justice Alito explicates the traditional understanding of how to assess a valid guilty plea waiver, which is to say you ask first, does the federal Constitution preclude waiving the right issue? Second, if the Constitution permits waiver, does some other law nevertheless bar it? And three, if no law prevents waiver, did the defendant knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waive the right to raise the claim on appeal? This analysis corresponds with the court's longstanding view that a guilt plea marks a break in the chain of events in the criminal justice system. And admitting to guilt is an admission of both factual guilt, i.e., you committed the facts set forth in the indictment, and legal guilt, in other words, what you did is a crime.

                                         Justice Alito's dissent is almost double the length of the court's opinion, partly because it does what the court's opinion suggested but I don't think actually does fully, which is detailing the Blackledge-Menna doctrine and how the court has subsequently treated them along with those cases, that is, along with their relationship to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11, which governs waiver and guilty pleas in the federal courts.

                                         The dissent's disregard for the anomaly presented by the Blackledge-Menna doctrine is pretty clear. The dissent describes either or both of those decisions as everything from thinly reasoned, vacuous, having no sound foundation, being marked departures from our prior decisions, hard to follow, providing no clear or coherent explanation for their departure from otherwise clear and strong rules regarding guilty plea waivers. And it says that their own internal logic, that is, the logic of Blackledge and Menna, were hard to grasp.

                                         At a minimum, the dissent concludes consistent with the subsequent repudiation the Supreme Court provided to much of what Blackledge and Menna say beyond their own claims, these two cases should be limited to the particular types of claims involved in those cases. And the dissenters would certainly not expand their reach, which if nothing else is what today's decision does by lumping Class' "circumstances" into the kinds of circumstances that allow you to bring a constitutional challenge to an otherwise valid guilty plea waiver.

                                         It's interesting that this may be the first time, it's certainly a rare occasion, but it may also be the first time when Justices Gorsuch and Thomas have ended up on opposite sides of a case. And it seems as if Justice Gorsuch may have had a particularly unique impact on the analysis in this opinion. Although I mentioned that Justice Breyer wrote it, some of the quotations, particularly to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision and a quote from Justice Harlan, were things that Justice Gorsuch specifically brought up at oral argument. And it also is interesting given when this case was argued how long it took for the court to produce what is ultimately a 10-page opinion, which suggests something about maybe some of the internal dynamics at work there and what Justice Gorsuch's influences may have been on this opinion.

                                         Going forward, I think this case raises some very interesting questions, but I'm happy to kind of take that as they come in the Q&A and toss it back to Wes.

Wesley Hodges:              Wonderful. Well, let's go ahead and open up the floor to audience questions. While we wait for any question from the audience, I would just like to ask you, Will, what are your thoughts on going forward with this case? What has changed?

Will Haun:                        Well, it's interesting. I think in the future, it seems clear enough from Class that a criminal defendant can now waive constitutional claims against an otherwise valid guilty plea on appeal, but that itself is not all that clear. It's not clear to me at least what that means. I mean, may prosecutors seek an explicit waiver of such claims so long as they're knowing, voluntary, intelligent, explicitly in the guilty plea, and they're not jurisdictional? In other words, they're waiving personal constitutional rights like the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms as opposed to rights that implicate the legitimacy or the structure of the judicial process? Or is it the case that not even an explicit waiver in the plea agreement would be sufficient to waive such a challenge on appeal?

                                         I think we also have to ask in light of this decision what the effect of the circumstances of Class' case are on subsequent constitutional challenges to valid guilty pleas. As I mentioned, throughout the opinion, and particularly when trying to, I think, establish some of the opinion's contours, the majority frequently made reference to Class' circumstances or the circumstances here. In other words, meaning that Class' challenge didn't contradict the terms of the indictment or the written plea agreement, that Class' challenge was consistent with his knowing, voluntary, and intelligent mission that he did factually what the indictment alleged, and that at least in the court's view, although the dissent disagreed with this point certainly, that Class' claims could be resolved without any need to venture beyond the record. In other words, to do any kind of additional fact-finding.

                                         So must acceptable challenges not contradict the terms of indictment or the written plea agreement? We don't know. Is that enough? Must they also be consistent with a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent admission of factual guilt and not require any further fact-finding? Is that by itself enough? Or do you need all of Class' circumstances? We don't know. What about the understanding from the court's doctrine that an admission to guilty plea wasn't just an admission to factual guilt but also to legal guilt? We don't really know. And what if it turns out on remand when [inaudible 00:12:54] now Class' appeal is sent back to the lower courts? What happens if the dissenters are right and additional fact-finding is required to adjudicate Class' claims?

                                         And I also think we have to think about what is effect of this decision on state level prosecutions? I mean, there's an extensive discussion particularly in the dissent and mostly in the majority as a response to the dissent of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11, which governs waiver and guilty pleas in the federal criminal justice system. Well, because the court's not exactly clear on whether it's just dealing with federal defendants. There's some times in which the references are made to Class as a federal defendant. Other times, it's talking about federal and state. And states sometimes have different procedures that could result in different outcomes, and so how this case bears upon the state level procedures, I think is an open question.

                                         One thing I would just say is that some people may be used to uncertainty and open-endedness in Supreme Court opinions, and they may not think that such objections are a problem. But as I think the court itself has said and certainly other courts have said and commentators have said, one of the virtues of the guilty plea process is precisely that such pleas provide clarity and finality to the criminal justice system and that the criminal justice system would otherwise be unworkable. It would be grinded to a screeching halt if guilty pleas did not in fact provide clarity and finality. We need them precisely for this reason.

                                         So if each decision like Class, which sort of raises more questions and ambiguity and uncertainty about guilty pleas and waivers, it's hard to see how guilty pleas actually achieve their very virtue, which is finality and certainty in the criminal justice system.

Wesley Hodges:              Thank you, Will, for that analysis. It looks like the queue is still open, so if any of our audience members would like to ask a question, we invite you to. Just enter the star key and then the pound key before we finish today. Will, do you have anymore thoughts for us? Anything that you haven't covered and would like to cover in more detail?

Will Haun:                        No, I think what's been said captures the case.

Wesley Hodges:              Well, Will, you've done an exemplary job explaining this case, and we're all very grateful for the time spent with us. So on behalf of The Federalist Society, I would like to thank you for the benefit of your valuable time and expertise. We welcome all listener feedback by email at Thank you all for joining us today. This call is now adjourned.

                                         Thank you for listening. We hope you enjoyed this Practice Group Podcast. For materials related to this podcast and other Federalist Society multimedia, please visit The Federalist Society's website at