Mark Sherman

WASHINGTON: The Supreme Court tried to figure out Tuesday whether immigrants should get a second chance in court when bad legal advice leads to a guilty plea and certain deportation.

The justices seemed divided during an argument about what to do in cases in which the evidence against criminal defendants is strong and the chances of acquittal by a jury are remote.

The court is considering the case of Jae Lee, a South Korean immigrant facing drug charges.

Lee pleaded guilty after his lawyer wrongly assured him a conviction would not lead to deportation.

The Trump administration is arguing the outcome at trial would have been the same. The administration has pledged to increase deportations, with a focus on immigrants who have been convicted of crimes.

John Bursch, Lee’s lawyer, told the court that his client would have taken his chances at trial or had his lawyer seek a better plea deal that might allow him to stay in the U.S.

Justice Elena Kagan, seeming to favor Lee, said she’d make the same choice if she were in Lee’s shoes. “Sign me up,” Kagan said.

The issue in Lee’s appeal is whether the lawyer’s recommendation to take the deal offered by prosecutors was so bad that it amounts to a violation of Lee’s constitutional right to a lawyer.

Both sides agree that the performance of the lawyer, Larry Fitzgerald, was deficient in representing Lee. The Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that immigrants have a constitutional right to be told by their lawyers whether pleading guilty to a crime could lead to deportation.

The federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled that the evidence against Lee was overwhelming and that he would have been convicted had he rejected the plea offer and taken his chances at trial. Other appeals courts have sided with immigrants in similar circumstances.

Mental disabilities

Also Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas’ method for evaluating mental disability in death row inmates was a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In a 5-3 decision, the court ordered Texas to use modern medical standards, rather than the criteria the state currently use, which are based on medical standards from 1992, to determine whether death row inmates are fit to be executed.

Showdown on Gorsuch

Meanwhile, a showdown loomed over President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee as the number of Democrats opposing Judge Neil Gorsuch grew to more than 25. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged Gorsuch would be confirmed next week regardless of the Democratic opposition.

The Dallas Morning News contributed to this report.