Puckett v. United States - Oral Argument - January 14, 2009

Puckett v. United States

Media for Puckett v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 25, 2009 in Puckett v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 14, 2009 in Puckett v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We will hear argument first today in Case 07-9712, Puckett v. United States.

Mr. Isaacson.

Lars R. Isaacson:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court: This case is framed by two major facts: Jimmy Puckett pled guilty and waived his fundamental right to trial in exchange for a promise by the government that they agreed he was qualified for a three-level reduction in his offense level; and the government of the United States breached this promise.

The teachings of this Court in this situation are instructive.

For a plea to be valid, it must be voluntary and intelligent.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Mr. Isaacson, you said there were two facts.

Aren't there three?

Isn't it a fact that after the plea bargain the defendant in essence broke his side of the bargain by committing a crime while he was in jail?

Lars R. Isaacson:

No, Your Honor.

He did not breach the plea agreement by doing that.


Antonin Scalia:

Well, I used to teach contract law and I'll tell you that would have been a breach of contract.

That would have been a breach on his part.

Now, the government has conceded the breach of the plea agreement.

I don't -- I can't understand why they did that, but they apparently have conceded it.

Does that mean that we have to ignore it for purposes of deciding what the -- what the remedy is?

Ignore the reality that there was a breach?

I mean, you know, if the government said, we will ask the court to sentence at the lower end because of the -- the remorse that the defendant has shown, and the defendant then demonstrates that he has no remorse by -- you know, suppose he comes and stabs the judge -- is the government really supposed to have to go before the judge and say,

"Your Honor, this man is really remorseful and you should sentence him at the lower end? "

It seems to me it's a basic principle of contract law that a party to a contract cannot take action which makes it impracticable for the other side to carry out his part of the bargain, and that's what your client did.

The government couldn't practicably go in and make that argument when he had demonstrated himself to be an unremorseful criminal.

Lars R. Isaacson:

--The government in this case drafted a plea agreement, and most plea agreements -- I've practiced in the Northern District of Texas quite often, and virtually every plea agreement has a provision in it that says if the defendant does some type of criminal activity, thus it will render it void.

This plea agreement did not have that in it.

Antonin Scalia:


Lars R. Isaacson:

So it's different than most plea agreements.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

So you want to us make the inference that the impermissible or criminal activity was permitted by the absence of this specific clause.

You say there is no implied condition, no implied covenant?

Lars R. Isaacson:

Well, I'm not -- what we are saying is the government needs to obey the promise in the plea agreement.

The promise in the plea agreement is--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, the questions so far indicate that one of the promises was an implied promise that you will keep the terms of the agreement by lawful behavior.