Last week the Supreme Court asked the Solicitor General to file a response to a certiorari petition challenging a controversial 2015 Third Circuit decision. Third Circuit, I love you, but I’m rooting for reversal.
Last August, the Third Circuit rejected Cosmo Fazio’s appeal challenging his guilty plea. I sounded off here, to wit:
My (biased, no doubt) two cents: I don’t understand this ruling one bit. The plea lawyer told the defendant that deportation was possible but unlikely. How is the harm from that terrible advice cured by the fact that the defendant was told that no one can predict to a certainty whether he’d be deported? The plea and the colloquy did not contradict the bad advice.
And what about the fact that when Fazio found out the truth right after his plea he tried to withdraw it right away? Doesn’t that suggest there’s a mere reasonable probability that he would have done the same thing a few weeks earlier if he’d gotten the same advice then? Isn’t that something the opinion should have at least mentioned?
The court relied on its prior ruling in Shedrick, where a defendant pled guilty and then, after he got a big sentence, argued that plea counsel’s plea advice was ineffective. Shedrick gambled, found out that his gamble had failed, and only then tried to undo his plea. But that’s nothing like what Fazio did. Nothing changed between Fazio’s plea and his motion to withdraw it, except that he got competent advice about the plea consequences. He moved to withdraw his plea over a year before the government initiated deportation proceedings.
Rehearing? Cert for summary reversal? This one may not be over.
It bugged me so much that I went hunting online, and what I found bugged me some more:
Here is the 2011 PA Supreme Court order (tragically, entered less than two months after Fazio’s plea hearing) suspending the law license of the Fazio’s plea attorney, Mark D. Lancaster (who is not named in today’s opinion), for failing to file briefs in several Third Circuit appeals. The Disciplinary Board noted its “grave concern as to his fitness to practice law” and also observed that the Third Circuit removed him from 3 cases for work that was “severely lacking” and removed him from the CJA panel. The Board noted that he also had been disciplined in 2005 for failing to file briefs in 2 cases and failing to adequately communicate with his client in a third. If you ask me, all of this, absent from today’s opinion, is highly relevant to the prejudice question.
Fazio’s motion for en banc rehearing (joined by an amicus) was denied, and he filed a Supreme Court petition for certiorari last month. Counsel of record remains Mark Goldstein. The government waived response, but last week the court requested one, due April 14. (The Supreme Court docket page is here.)
The call for response is encouraging, but statistically speaking a cert grant remains a longshot. A 2009 law review article reported that calls for response up the odds of granting cert from less than 1% to 8.6%.
UPDATE: I just noticed that Third Circuit nominee Rebecca Ross Haywood was listed as one of the two lawyers representing the government in Fazio in the Third Circuit. (Michael Ivory was the AUSA who did the oral argument.) [UPDATE TO UPDATE: The opinion caption listed Haywood among counsel, but her name does not appear on the government’s brief.]
UPDATE 2: According to his linkedin page, the plea lawyer ended his practice in 2011 and now is a facilities engineer for a charity in Colorado. The PA Disciplinary Board website lists his status as suspended.