“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump justices Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett cast deciding votes in a 6-3 decision to summarily reverse the conservative Eleventh Circuit court of appeals and rule that a death sentence should be reinstated, even though the Eleventh Circuit had found that an Alabama state court had improperly evaluated a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The July 2021 decision was in Dunn v Reeves.
In 1998, Matthew Reeves was on trial in Alabama for committing a “brutal crime” several years earlier, when he was 18. His lawyers strongly argued for the appointment of a neuropsychiatrist, Dr. John Goff, to conduct an intellectual disability evaluation. They maintained that engaging someone like Goff was the “only avenue open” to compile and help present “hundreds of pages” of important psychological analysis that was crucial in defending Reeves. This was particularly true in the penalty phase of the case, since the Supreme Court has ruled that it violates the Eighth Amendment to execute someone who is intellectually disabled. The state court initially refused, but then approved funding to hire Dr Goff. Around that time, the lawyer who had argued for the funding was replaced by another attorney.
As Justice Sonia Sotomayor later put it, Reeves’ new lawyer “failed to follow through on hiring a neuropsychologist.” As Dr. Goff later testified, in the three-plus months between his appointment and the penalty phase of the trial, Reeves’ attorneys “just never called” and did not hire anyone else to perform that function. On the day of the trial, they contacted a psychologist who had previously seen Reeves, but explained that she had not done any evaluation of him for intellectual disability and that her work would not help defend against imposition of the death penalty. Nevertheless, she was called to testify in a penalty phase hearing that only also included Reeves’ mother and a police detective, and that lasted only about ninety minutes. Reeves was sentenced to death.
Several years later, another attorney filed a motion for postconviction relief for Reeves, and contended that trial counsel had been “constitutionally ineffective” because he had failed to hire and use a neuropsychologist like Dr. Goff in support of the claim that Reeves should not have been put to death because of intellectual disability. Dr. Goff testified, explained that Reeves clearly was intellectually disabled, and that he would have testified to the “same conclusions” had he been asked to testify at the penalty phase. The state court nonetheless rejected the motion.
On appeal, Reeves’ attorney argued that the lower court had ignored this “substantial evidence” because trial counsel were not called to testify about their decision to call the other psychologist rather than Dr. Goff. The state argued that this was appropriate, maintaining that the court had “properly presumed” that they acted reasonably since they were not called to testify. The state appeals court agreed, stating that in order to overcome the presumption that trial counsel was not deficient, a petitioner like Reeves “must, at his evidentiary hearing, question trial counsel regarding his or her actions and reasoning” (emphasis in original).
Reeves filed a federal petition for post-conviction relief, and the Eleventh Circuit court of appeals granted it. The court found that the state court of appeals had “unreasonably applied” a Supreme Court decision that ruled that a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel must be evaluated “in light of all the circumstances.” This was because the state court had treated the failure to call trial counsel to testify as a “per se” or categorical “bar to relief,” despite “ample evidence” of inadequacy. Based on its evaluation of that evidence, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that Reeves had proven that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective, and ruled against the death penalty.
Alabama asked the Supreme Court to review the case and “reverse summarily” the Eleventh Circuit. In an unsigned opinion issued without full briefing and without oral argument, the 6-3 majority of the Court did exactly that, made possible by Trump justices Barrett, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. According to the majority, the Eleventh Circuit had engaged in “mischaracterization” of the state appellate court opinion. They denied that the state court had “adopted a blanket rule” requiring testimony by trial counsel, and claimed instead that it had “reasonably concluded” that in this particular case, the failure to call trial counsel left the record “incomplete” and did not justify a conclusion that trial counsel had been constitutionally ineffective. The unsigned opinion thus granted Alabama’s request for review of the case and summarily reversed the Eleventh Circuit opinion, so that the death penalty would be reinstated against Reeves.
The Court’s three moderate justices – Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan – dissented, with a strong opinion by Sotomayor joined by Kagan. Sotomayor explained that the majority had gone to “extraordinary” lengths to “ensure that Reeves remains on death row,” including “linguistic contortion” and “implausible reading” of the state appeals court’s decision. Carefully analyzing that opinion, the dissent explained that the court had done nothing more than “perfunctorily” refer to the obligation to consider “all the circumstances,” and that its “analysis began and ended with counsel’s failure to testify,” as suggested by the underlined quotation above. Sotomayor pointedly noted that state courts “cannot insulate their decisions from scrutiny” merely by “quoting the proper standard and then ignoring it.” In suggesting that the state appeals court considered all the circumstances when the record shows it did not, Sotomayor continued, the majority was “putting words in the state court’s mouth that the state court never uttered, and which are flatly inconsistent with what the state court did say.”
Justice Sotomayor concluded that the ruling in Reeves’ case, which was made possible by the votes of the three Trump justices, “continues a troubling trend” in which the Court majority “strains to reverse summarily any grants of relief to those facing execution” while it rejects requests for relief by people on death row “based on compelling showings that their constitutional rights were violated.” It is unfortunately likely that our fight for our courts will need to continue for some time before this situation is meaningfully changed at the Supreme Court level.