Class v. United States: Bargained Justice and a System of Efficiencies

Cato Supreme Court Review (2018)

26 Pages Posted: 6 Dec 2018

Date Written: September 17, 2018


In 2018, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Class v. United States that a defendant does not inherently waive his or her right to appeal constitutional claims simply by entering an unconditional plea of guilty. Rather, the Court determined such waivers must be express. While the issue decided in Class was relatively straightforward, the case stands more importantly as another pillar in the growing body of modern plea-bargaining jurisprudence. In particular, Class is of note because the facts of the case and the discussions surrounding the appeal raise fundamental questions regarding the operation of the plea-bargaining machine, the psychology of defendant decision-making, and the voluntariness of plea bargaining given our growing understanding of the phenomenon of factually innocent defendants falsely pleading guilty. This article begins with an examination of Class, including the incentives that led the defendant to plead guilty despite his belief that the statute of conviction infringed his constitutional rights. The article then examines the shadowy rise of plea bargaining during the 19th and 20th centuries and the recent focus on plea bargaining by the Supreme Court since its 2010 decision in Padilla v. Kentucky. This analysis of recent plea-bargaining case law will illustrate that fundamental issues are beginning to rise to the surface regarding defendant decision-making and voluntariness in the plea context, including the reliability of admissions of guilt in return for plea bargains and the phenomenon of false pleas. The article, therefore, next examines recent psychological research on these topics, including research demonstrating that factually innocent individuals will falsely confess in return for the benefits of a bargain and research finding that pretrial detention is a driver of false pleas. Finally, the piece considers the ramifications of growing evidence that plea bargaining has a voluntariness and reliability problem. Along with considering ways to address these concerns, the article proposes that these revelations will inevitably lead us to face a broader question. What does it mean if we have adopted a criminal justice system that embraces efficiency at the expense of accuracy?

Keywords: plea bargain, innocence, Class, Padilla, guilt, voluntariness, efficiency

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K14, K30, K40, K41, K42

Suggested Citation

Dervan, Lucian E., Class v. United States: Bargained Justice and a System of Efficiencies (September 17, 2018). Cato Supreme Court Review (2018), Available at SSRN:

Lucian E. Dervan (Contact Author)

Belmont University School of Law ( email )

1900 Belmont Boulevard
Nashville, TN 37212
United States


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