People For the American Way

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Trump Circuit Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Dismiss Appeal Against Government’s Breach of a Plea Agreement

News and Analysis
Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Trump Circuit Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Dismiss Appeal Against Government’s Breach of a Plea Agreement

In March 2019, Trump Eleventh Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch wrote and cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 decision that dismissed an individual’s ability to bring a direct criminal appeal against the government for breach of a plea agreement.

In U.S. v. Rachel Lee Padgett, Rachel Padgett was charged with drug-related crimes. She accepted a plea agreement and pleaded guilty to two of the counts against her. The plea agreement included a provision waiving Padgett’s right to appeal her conviction and her sentence. The agreement also included a provision indicating that the government would not object to a reduced sentence for Padgett. However, the government breached that provision and objected to Padgett’s reduced sentence. Padgett was subsequently sentenced to 20 years in prison, at least three years  longer than she would have received if the plea agreement had been followed. On the same day of the sentencing Padgett, representing herself, appealed.

It is well-understood that when an individual represents herself, the courts construe the procedural rules liberally. The majority did otherwise and dismissed Padgett’s  case. They focused on the fact that she did not call her document an appeal, and they decided to treat it as something called a “collateral attack,” which is treated differently from an appeal.  By doing so, they deprived her of the right to directly appeal the prosecution’s breach of their plea agreement.

Judge Charles Wilson disagreed. He made clear that the law dictates that an appeal should not be dismissed solely due to an incorrect form or title. He pointed out that the district court accepted and construed Padgett’s filing as a notice of appeal, the filing was given the proper docket number, and it was timely submitted and sent to the appellate court. Wilson explained that the filing was the functional equivalent of an appeal and the majority incorrectly dismissed Padgett’s filing on a technicality.