The Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 governs guilty pleas, saying a court "must not participate in [plea] discussions," and a "variance from the requirements of th[e] rule is harmless error if it does not affect substantial rights." Rule 52(a), which covers trial court errors generally, similarly says: "Any error ... that does not affect substantial rights must be disregarded."
A grand jury in southern Georgia indicted Anthony Davila on multiple tax fraud charges. White under indictment, Davila wrote to the federal judge expressing dissatisfaction with his court-appointed attorney, saying the attorney offered no defensive strategy, but simply advised him to plead guilty. Davila asked for new council.
Behind closed doors, a magistrate judge met with Davila and his attorney -- but no prosecutor -- and told Davila he would not get another court-appointed attorney. The magistrate said given the strength of the government's case, Davila's best course would be to plead guilty.
More than three months later, Davila pleaded guilty in a deal, swearing under oath before a federal judge he had not been pressured or forced.
Before sentencing, Davila's lawyer asked that the plea be thrown out -- or vacated. A federal judge denied the motion, but a federal appeals court ruled that under rule 11 the plea had to be thrown out.
However, the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said throwing out the plea "is not in order if the record shows no prejudice to Davila's decision to plead guilty."
The high court ruling vacates -- or throws out -- the appeals court ruling and sends the case back down for a new ruling in light of the Supreme Court opinion.