People For the American Way

Trump Justices Cast Deciding Votes to Seriously Weaken the Constitutional Right to Counsel

News and Analysis
Trump Justices Cast Deciding Votes to Seriously Weaken the Constitutional Right to Counsel

Trump Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett cast deciding votes in a 6-3 decision that made it much harder for people to uphold their constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel in criminal cases. The majority ruled that federal courts cannot consider evidence not available in state court that proves a lawyer’s defective performance. Even new evidence that shows someone’s actual innocence cannot be considered according to the majority. Justice Thomas wrote the 6-3 May 2022 opinion in Shinn v Martinez RamirezThe ruling focused on two particular lower court cases. 

  

What happened in the lower courts in the Jones case?

  An Arizona jury convicted Barry Lee Jones of murder in connection with the death of his girlfriend’s daughter. The state claimed that she died as a result of an injury “sustained while in [his] care.” A judge sentenced him to death.

His trial counsel, however, failed to “undertake even a cursory investigation,” as Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained. As a result, counsel did not uncover or present to the jury “readily available medical evidence that could have shown” that the daughter was injured “when she was not in Jones’ care” at all.

Under Arizona law, Jones’ first chance to argue about his lawyer’s incompetence occurred during state post-conviction review. Contrary to state law, however, a state court appointed a post-conviction lawyer who did not meet minimum qualifications. As a result, that lawyer “failed to advance any argument” or put forward any evidence that Jones’ trial counsel improperly failed to investigate the medical evidence that could have exonerated him.

With competent counsel in federal post-conviction proceedings, a hearing resulted in a finding that evidence showed that the injuries to the daughter “could not have been inflicted at the time” that Jones was with her. The federal court also found that Jones’ state lawyers had clearly been incompetent. Under the 2012 Supreme Court decision in Martinez v Ryan, the court went on, the issue was properly raised for the first time in federal court because the state court lawyers had incompetently failed to do so.

The Ninth Circuit rejected the state’s claim that federal law precluded raising the evidence first in federal court. The Supreme Court decided to review the case.

 

What happened in the lower courts concerning the Ramirez case?

 In another case, a different Arizona court convicted David Ramirez and sentenced him to death in connection with the death of his girlfriend and her daughter. But his trial counsel inexplicably failed to present evidence to a court-appointed psychologist of his intellectual disability or develop a claim of intellectual disability to counter the proposed death sentence. Ramirez’s state post-conviction lawyer failed to develop and argue the incompetence of his trial counsel. This was “despite being aware” of clear indications of possible intellectual disabilities.

In federal court, Ramirez’s post-conviction counsel developed persuasive evidence of his disability that his state lawyers had never pursued. This included evidence of “the depths of abuse and neglect Ramirez suffered as a child” and the “life-long manifestations of his possible disability.”

Although the federal court initially denied Ramirez’s federal lawyer the opportunity to further develop the disability claim, the state conceded on appeal that his state post-conviction counsel “performed deficiently.” The Ninth Circuit ruled that under Martinez, Ramirez should have the opportunity to establish his claims. This was because his state post-conviction lawyer’s “ineffective representation” had “precluded” him “from such development.” The Supreme Court decided to review the case.

 

What did the Supreme Court majority do?

 The 6-3 majority reversed the Ninth Circuit in both cases and ruled that neither Jones nor Ramirez could proceed with their claims. The net result: both remain sentenced to death.

According to the majority, federal death penalty law as properly interpreted forbids a federal post-conviction court from holding a hearing or “otherwise consider[ing]” any evidence “beyond the state-court record.” This remains true, the majority held, even where the record is arguably inadequate “based on” the  “ineffective assistance of state post-conviction counsel.”

According to the majority, a convicted person must “bea[r] responsibility for all attorney errors” during post-conviction proceedings, including “failure to develop the state post-conviction record.” Thomas claimed that the prior Martinez ruling only provided “cause” to “forgive procedural default” and did not warrant a federal court considering factual issues for the first time because state counsel had incompetently failed to do so.

 

What did the dissent say and what’s the impact of the ruling?

 Justice Sotomayor strongly dissented on behalf of herself and Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. She explained that the majority ruling undermined the “bedrock principle” that the Sixth Amendment “guarantees” the “right to effective assistance of counsel at trial.” The result, she went on, will leave “many people” convicted in “violation” of that right “to face incarceration or even execution” without any opportunity to vindicate their rights, even in cases involving claims of actual innocence like Jones.

Sotomayor carefully explained how the majority had improperly “all but overrule[d]” Martinez and another recent Court precedent. These rulings made clear that a federal post-conviction court can properly consider new evidence where prior incompetence of counsel prevented its consideration in state court. Instead, Sotomayor criticized, the majority held that it is the defendant who is somehow “at fault” for the “ineffective assistance” of state post-conviction counsel in presenting the case. This holding, Sotomayor wrote, is “perverse” and “illogical” and “guts” prior precedent.

Sotomayor carefully explained how neither prior precedent nor federal law justify the result. Because of the Court’s decision, Sotomayor concluded, for people who receive ineffective assistance of counsel in state court, “the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee is now an empty one.”

The Court’s decision produced immediate criticism. A lawyer for Jones and Ramirez called it “tragic” and an “assault on basic fairness.” The problem becomes particularly severe, he explained, in a case like Jones where a federal court has evidence that a person “did not commit the crime” but remains “helpless to offer any relief.” As Professor Leah Litman put it, the ruling will have “disastrous” consequences for “anyone relying on their constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.” And like the leaked opinion in the Dobbs abortion case, she went on, it “makes clear that the court’s conservative supermajority” is now “hellbent on smashing and grabbing precedent and constitutional rights no matter the consequences.”