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Supreme Court Rules for Inmate With Double Claims of Ineffective Assistance; Scalia Detects a ‘Sham’

Posted Mar 20, 2012 11:36 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Updated: A prisoner who claimed he received ineffective assistance at trial and once again at his first opportunity to raise the claim on review got some help from the U.S. Supreme Court today.

The court, in an opinion (PDF) by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, refused to address whether convicted sex offender Luis Mariano Martinez had a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel in the state collateral appeal. But the court held in a 7-2 opinion that ineffective assistance by the appellate lawyer could excuse Martinez’s failure to raise the ineffective assistance claim, allowing a federal court to consider the issue.

Justice Antonin Scalia took aim at the opinion in a dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, saying its claim of restraint "insults the reader's intelligence."

Martinez had been convicted of sexual contact with a minor in Arizona, where state law bars ineffective counsel claims on direct appeal. The alleged victim, Martinez’s stepdaughter, had recanted her accusations, but a prosecution expert testified at trial that such a change of heart is most often caused by a lack of support by the victim’s mother.

Martinez says his trial counsel should have challenged the expert testimony as inaccurate, and the lawyer who represented him in his state collateral appeal should have contended he received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals barred Martinez’s claim that his trial lawyer was ineffective, saying it had been procedurally defaulted by his first habeas lawyer. As a result, the federal courts could not consider the issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, saying it was “recognizing a narrow exception” to the default rule established in a 1991 decision, Coleman v. Thompson. The exception "reflects the importance of the right to the effective assistance of trial counsel and Arizona’s decision to bar defendants from raising ineffective assistance claims on direct appeal," Kennedy wrote.

“When an attorney errs in initial-review collateral proceedings, it is likely that no state court at any level will hear the prisoner’s claim,” Kennedy said. “And if counsel’s errors in an initial-review collateral proceeding do not establish cause to excuse the procedural default in a federal habeas proceeding, no court will review the prisoner’s claims. The same is not true when counsel errs in other kinds of postconviction proceedings.”

Scalia's dissent suggests the majority opinion is not as limited as it suggests.

"No one really believes that the newly announced 'equitable' rule will remain limited to ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel cases," Scalia writes. "There is not a dime’s worth of difference in principle between those cases and many other cases in which initial state habeas will be the first opportunity for a particular claim to be raised: claims of 'newly discovered' prosecutorial misconduct, for example, ... claims based on 'newly discovered' exculpatory evidence or 'newly discovered' impeachment of prosecutorial witnesses, and claims asserting ineffective assistance of appellate counsel.

"The court’s soothing assertion ... that its holding 'addresses only the constitutional claims presented in this case,' insults the reader’s intelligence."

The decision has the same effect, Scalia says, as a holding that collateral-review counsel is constitutionally required. "The court’s pretended avoidance of requiring states to appoint collateral-review counsel is a sham," he says.

The case is Martinez v. Ryan. The ABA had filed an amicus brief in the case supporting Martinez.

In a statement released Tuesday, ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III applauded the decision. “This significant ruling will help ensure fairness and justice for many criminal defendants throughout the country, including those on death row,” he said. “Many defendants who received ineffective representation or no representation at all during their post-conviction proceedings have been unable to present claims concerning violations of their constitutional rights at trial in federal court. The court’s decision today recognizes the injustice of that circumstance.”

Updated on March 21 to include statement by Robinson.

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