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May 23, 2022

Supreme Court decides, via usual 6-3 vote, to read AEDPA restrictively to limit federal habeas efforts

The Supreme Court this morning released two opinion, one of which dealt with federal habeas process in a capital case.  The ruling was the product of a 6-3 vote in Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez, No. 20-1009 (S. Ct. May 23, 2022) (available here), with the opinion for the Court authored by Justice Thomas and the dissent authored by Justice Sotomayor.  Here is how the opinion for the Court gets started:

A federal habeas court generally may consider a state prisoner’s federal claim only if he has first presented that claim to the state court in accordance with state procedures.  When the prisoner has failed to do so, and the state court would dismiss the claim on that basis, the claim is “procedurally defaulted.”  To overcome procedural default, the prisoner must demonstrate “cause” to excuse the procedural defect and “actual prejudice” if the federal court were to decline to hear his claim. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991). In Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1 (2012), this Court explained that ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel is “cause” to forgive procedural default of an ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim, but only if the State required the prisoner to raise that claim for the first time during state postconviction proceedings.

Often, a prisoner with a defaulted claim will ask a federal habeas court not only to consider his claim but also to permit him to introduce new evidence to support it.  Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), the standard to expand the state-court record is a stringent one.  If a prisoner has “failed to develop the factual basis of a claim in State court proceedings,” a federal court “shall not hold an evidentiary hearing on the claim” unless the prisoner satisfies one of two narrow exceptions, see 28 U.S.C. §2254(e)(2)(A), and demonstrates that the new evidence will establish his innocence “by clear and convincing evidence,” §2254(e)(2)(B).  In all but these extraordinary cases, AEDPA “bars evidentiary hearings in federal habeas proceedings initiated by state prisoners.” McQuiggin v. Perkins, 569 U.S. 383, 395 (2013).

The question presented is whether the equitable rule announced in Martinez permits a federal court to dispense with §2254(e)(2)’s narrow limits because a prisoner’s state postconviction counsel negligently failed to develop the state-court record.  We conclude that it does not.

Here is how the dissent gets started:

The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to the effective assistance of counsel at trial.  This Court has recognized that right as “a bedrock principle” that constitutes the very “foundation for our adversary system” of criminal justice.  Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1, 12 (2012).  Today, however, the Court hamstrings the federal courts’ authority to safeguard that right. The Court’s decision will leave many people who were convicted in violation of the Sixth Amendment to face incarceration or even execution without any meaningful chance to vindicate their right to counsel.

In reaching its decision, the Court all but overrules two recent precedents that recognized a critical exception to the general rule that federal courts may not consider claims on habeas review that were not raised in state court. Just 10 years ago, the Court held that a federal court may consider a habeas petitioner’s substantial claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel (a “trial-ineffectiveness” claim), even if not presented in state court, if the State barred the petitioner from asserting that claim until state postconviction proceedings, and the petitioner’s counsel in those proceedings was also ineffective. See id., at 17; see also Trevino v. Thaler, 569 U.S. 413, 429 (2013).  Martinez and Trevino establish that such a petitioner is not at fault for any failure to bring a trial-ineffectiveness claim in state court. Despite these precedents, the Court today holds that such a petitioner is nonetheless at fault for the ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel in developing the evidence of trial ineffectiveness in state court.  The Court instead holds that a petitioner in these circumstances, having received ineffective assistance of trial and postconviction counsel, is barred from developing such evidence in federal court.

This decision is perverse. 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. In so doing, the Court guts Martinez’s and Trevino’s core reasoning.  The Court also arrogates power from Congress: The Court’s analysis improperly reconfigures the balance Congress struck in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) between state interests and individual constitutional rights.

By the Court’s telling, its holding (however implausible) is compelled by statute.  Make no mistake.  Neither AEDPA nor this Court’s precedents require this result.  I respectfully dissent.

May 23, 2022 at 10:33 AM | Permalink


While, technically, Martinez was a 7-2 opinion, it always seemed like some members of the majority had joined to keep the opinion narrow. Given the plain language of 2254(i), Martinez always seemed to be on somewhat shaky ground with the majority finding a way to hold that they weren't granting relief on the basis of ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel but instead were merely allowing habeas courts to consider claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel (based on a finding of ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel).

Now with two of the justices in the Martinez majority no longer on the Supreme Court, what was probably really a 5-4 majority has become a 6-3 minority. While Justice Thomas does not formally overrule Martinez, there is very little left of Martinez. I can see how you can get prejudice for some very limited defaulted claims (e.g., failure to object, failure to request an instruction or a modification to an instruction) on the state court record, but I do not see many, if any circumstances, in which the record will be clear-cut enough to overcome the presumption of competency with no additional evidence permitted in federal court. And, in any case in which the record on competency is clear, the inmate is probably already getting relief on one of the other claims (or never had to go to federal court in the first place as he would have gotten relief in state court.

Posted by: tmm | May 23, 2022 11:16:45 AM

I misinterpreted the oral arguments. I thought SCOTUS would affirm.

Posted by: DaveP | May 23, 2022 12:42:21 PM

Same here on the interpretation, DaveP. When Thomas asked whether the Warden's position would effectively gut Martinez, I thought a yes from AZ was the wrong answer. My bad!

As for TMM's analysis, I don't disagree: we are at a place where the court is about people, not the law. The distinction the majority endorsed--not imputing PCR counsel's ineffectiveness for claims but imputing it for the facts in support of those very same claims--demonstrates how thin a logical reed the current Court is willing to rest upon in order to get the result it, as currently constituted, desires.

Posted by: John | May 24, 2022 12:34:23 AM

Agreed. A federal judge we did work for used to say something like this,"We are not a country of laws, but a country of men." Of course, that is very outdated.

Posted by: DaveP | May 24, 2022 10:02:51 AM

Or how thin a reed the justices have always been willing to use to get the result that they want.

Heading into Martinez, many judges -- both district court and court of appeals -- thought Coleman and 2254(i) dictated that ineffective assistance of state collateral review counsel was not cause excusing default of a claim. While it would have been highly debatable, the stronger holding in Martinez would have been finding a constitutional right to counsel in state collateral review. The holding that they went with, creating an equitable rule, was inherently weak being based on what the majority felt was the right thing to do. The problem with falling back on "equity" as the basis for a holding is that the next set of justices may have a different feeling of what is right.

The ruling in Shinn is a little better grounded in the statute than the decision in Martinez, but the distinction created by Shinn makes zero sense.

On the spin part of any judicial ruling, I saw an op-ed in a newspaper noted for its right-wing tendency claiming that the ruling in Shinn was a victory for individual rights due to its respect of federalism, separation of power, and protection of crime victims. If I had not seen the source, I would have thought that it was a parody piece in the Onion.

Posted by: tmm | May 24, 2022 10:50:09 AM

Only here or at other leftist sites do we see twice as much coverage given to the dissent (because they are liberal and agree with author) than we do to Majority who has twice as many votes 6-3 Interesting attempt to influence viewers but a susual falls flat The death penalty is here to stay for those states with courage to keep it.

Posted by: DeanO | May 28, 2022 8:48:27 PM

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