Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 77, No. 2 (February 2002), pp. 597-640


Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure governs perhaps the most essential and common practice in the federal criminal justice system--the guilty plea. Despite the public's focus on the excitement and drama engendered by real and fictional criminal trials, the overwhelming majority of criminal matters reach a negotiated resolution. Indeed, the importance of the guilty plea to the judiciary, prosecutors, and even defense attorneys cannot be overstated. Without guilty pleas, the criminal justice system would malfunction; the system is simply incapable of accommodating the constitutional exercise of a defendant's trial right in each instance.

The federal plea process was revised in 1975 when, in response to the 1969 United States Supreme Court decision in Boykin v. Alabama, sweeping amendments to Rule 11 were enacted in order to better ensure the entry of intelligent and voluntary guilty pleas. In lieu of the comparatively scant verbiage that characterized the pre-1975 version, the new rule detailed a plea process replete with procedures designed to guide the federal judiciary and protect the due process interests of the defendant. However, twenty-five years after the implementation of the revisions, there is, at a minimum, a considerable question whether the laudable objectives underlying the reforms are being fulfilled. Indeed, this Article posits that Rule 11 has not fulfilled its original promise. Instead of protecting against unintelligent and involuntary pleas, the rule's plain language and its appellate interpretation have produced a plea process that pays little homage to the original Boykin ideals.

Our public policy purportedly reflects our societal and/or political values. This Article will demonstrate how Rule 11, and its appellate construction, reflect a contorted value priority; one that unnecessarily devalues individual due process in exchange for a misperceived notion of judicial economy. To that end, this Article commences with a review of the constitutional standards that accompany guilty pleas as well as the historical evolution of Rule 11. Thereafter, Rule 11 will be discussed – with highlighted excerpts from the Theodore Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”) plea colloquy – in light of certain federal evidence rules, offender characteristic data, and economic and professional incentives that impact indigent representation. This Article will then review the most recent and significant addendums to Rule 11 – the appellate waiver and harmless error provisions--and demonstrate how these seemingly unexceptional modifications, and their subsequent judicial interpretation, have had a profoundly deleterious impact upon individual due process and are flatly inconsistent with Rule 11’ s purported underlying objectives. Finally, this Article will conclude with a suggested measure of reform. Though temperate, the proffered restructure of Rule 11 will alleviate many of the inequities associated with the current structure and restore the value priority originally contemplated in Boykin – one with a paramount concern for individual due process.