In a unanimous decision, the United State Supreme Court has ruled that a judge’s participation in a plea negotiation does not constitute a reversible error, given the language in the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(h), which stipulates that “a variance from this rule is harmless error if it does not affect substantial rights”. In this case, even though there was a clear violation of the Federal Rule which prohibits the court from participating directly in the plea negotiation, the Supreme Court determined that the defendant’s rights were not substantially affected, since the defendant could not prove that he would not have pled guilty. The appellate court concluded that the rule violation required an automatic reversal, but the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the lower court decision, asserting that the appellate court must decide “in light of the full record” whether the plea was affected by the violation.
Defendant Davila, under indictment on several counts of tax fraud, complained to the court that his court-appointed lawyer had “never mentioned a defense”; the magistrate judge presiding over the case advised Mr. Davila that pleading guilty and showing acceptance of responsibility might be his best course of action. The violation of the Federal Rule 11(c)(1) is clear, and in fact the government conceded this point in its argument before the Court. What was not clear was if this interference changed the defendant’s plea decision; because Davila did not plead guilty until three months later – in front of a different judge – and because he’d had several opportunities in his intervening court appearances to mention the magistrate judge’s remarks, the Court was persuaded that his plea was not affected by that initial rule violation. Indeed, when he moved to withdraw his guilty plea, he stated to the court that his plea had been a “strategic” one in order to obtain discovery, and he did not mention the prior judicial exchange.