Supreme Court majority tightens limitations on post-conviction appeal claims of ineffective counsel for death row inmates

The Supreme Court issued a ruling Monday that will, in effect, limit the ability of some death row inmates to seek federal review of claims of ineffective counsel.

In a 6-3 ruling, the high court determined that federal courts were not required to hold evidentiary hearings for inmates who had failed to first enter evidence in support of their ineffective counsel claims in a state court, the Conservative Brief reported.

Justice Clarence Thomas authored the majority opinion that was joined by the other five Republican-appointed jurists while Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent that was joined by her two other Democrat-appointed colleagues.

Claims of ineffective counsel

According to SCOTUSblog, the case involved two inmates sentenced to death in Arizona who had claimed during post-conviction proceedings that they had received ineffective counsel from their attorneys.

In general, such claims must first be made in a state court and evidence in support of the claim developed there before it can be raised in federal court, albeit with a few exceptions.

Those exceptions are laid out in a statutory provision of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, specifically Sec. 2254(e)(2), which states that “If the applicant has failed to develop the factual basis of a claim in State court proceedings, the court shall not hold an evidentiary hearing on the claim unless the applicant shows that … a factual predicate that could not have been previously discovered through the exercise of due diligence.”

However, a 2012 Supreme Court ruling known as Martinez v. Ryan had created precedence to allow such claims to be raised for the first time in federal court if the inmates were unable to do so in state court proceedings.

Thomas sides with congressional statute over past precedent; Sotomayor calls ruling “perverse”

In the majority opinion, Justice Thomas ultimately determined that inmates bear the responsibility for errors by their attorneys, though in doing so he effectively undermined the precedent set by Martinez.

He further deferred to the strict limitations in the statute authorized by Congress over the broader allowances of Martinez, and wrote, “Congress foreclosed respondents’ proposed expansion of Martinez when it passed AEDPA.”

But Justice Sotomayor did not agree, and offered up a dissent in which she asserted that the majority opinion undermined not only prior precedent but also the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of “effective counsel.”

“This decision is perverse,” Sotomayor wrote. “It is illogical: It makes no sense to excuse a habeas petitioner’s counsel’s failure to raise a claim altogether because of ineffective assistance in post-conviction proceedings … but to fault the same petitioner for that postconviction counsel’s failure to develop evidence in support of the trial-ineffectiveness claim.”

In other words, by way of the majority’s ruling, while a convict is not necessarily “at fault” for having an ineffective counsel who failed to raise claims of ineffective counsel at the proper procedural step, they are “at fault” for the failure to develop evidence as part of the record for the claims that had not been properly made.

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