U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court decision is an impediment for defendants who 'lost the lawyer lottery twice'

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that Arizona habeas defendants who claim that their trial and postconviction counsel were ineffective can’t introduce evidence outside the state-court record to prove that their first lawyer botched the case.

The high court ruled 6-3 against death row inmates David Martinez Ramirez and Barry Lee Jones, convicted of murder in Arizona in separate cases. They lost direct appeals in which they were barred by state law from claiming ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Then they lost in Arizona postconviction proceedings when their counsel failed to investigate evidence outside the trial record to raise ineffective assistance claims.

The Supreme Court ruled that Ramirez and Jones weren’t entitled to a federal hearing to develop evidence that their trial counsel was ineffective because of restrictions imposed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

Under the law, the majority concluded, “a federal habeas court may not conduct an evidentiary hearing or otherwise consider evidence beyond the state-court record based on the ineffective assistance of state postconviction counsel.”

Ramirez’s trial lawyer failed to develop a claim of intellectual disability, according to the dissenting opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Jones’ trial lawyer didn’t uncover medical evidence showing that the child he was accused of fatally injuring had been harmed when she was not in his care, Sotomayor said. Then their postconviction counsel didn’t develop an ineffective assistance claim.

The situation amounts to losing “the lawyer lottery twice,” according to Christina Swarns, executive director of the Innocence Project, who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on the case in December 2021.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion. He acknowledged the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Martinez v. Ryan, which held that ineffective assistance by a postconviction lawyer can excuse a failure to raise an ineffective trial counsel claim, when that claim couldn’t be brought on direct appeal.

But Thomas said the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act generally bars federal courts from holding evidentiary hearings after a state postconviction counsel fails to develop an ineffective assistance claim.

The inmates’ “proposed expansion of factfinding in federal court, whether by Martinez or other means, conflicts with any appropriately limited federal habeas review,” Thomas said. “In our dual-sovereign system, federal courts must afford unwavering respect to the centrality ‘of the trial of a criminal case in state court,’” he said, citing a prior decision.

Thomas’ opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Sotomayor’s dissent was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

Sotomayor argued that the majority opinion “guts” the core reasoning of Martinez and an opinion that followed, Trevino v. Thaler.

“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 postconviction proceedings, as Martinez and Trevino did, but to fault the same petitioner for that postconviction counsel’s failure to develop evidence in support of the trial-ineffectiveness claim.”

A lawyer for the inmates, Robert Loeb, commented in a statement forwarded to the ABA Journal.

“As the court itself admits, today’s decision guts Martinez and renders the review promised by the court (less than 10 years ago) meaningless,” Loeb said. “It means that a federal court can have evidence that someone, like Barry Jones, did not commit the crime supporting the death sentence, but that the court then is helpless to offer any relief.”

The case is Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

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