Monday, May 30, 2022

Thomas's Affront to Sixth Amendment

     Ten years ago, the Supreme Court gave a little bit of a break to state prisoners who claim to have been victims of unconstitutionally ineffective lawyering at trial or in subsequent legal appeals. The Court’s 7-2 ruling in Martinez v. Ryan (2012), issued long before Republicans succeeded in packing the current Court with conservative ideologues, held that a state prisoner could get a federal court hearing on a belatedly filed claim that he had been denied his Sixth Amendment right to counsel because of “ineffective assistance” from the lawyer appointed to handle his postconviction challenge.

            Two justices dissented from that decision, Antonin Scalia and his ideological soulmate Clarence Thomas. Five of the justices in the majority are still on the Court today: Roberts, Alito, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Two of the others – Kennedy and Ginsburg – have been replaced by Trump-appointed conservatives, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

            Now, with a radically different ideological alignment, the Court has reduced the earlier decision to a hollow shell in a ruling issued last week [May 23] that blocked two Arizona death row prisoners from getting the chance to present their “ineffective assistance of counsel” (IAC) claims to a federal habeas corpus court. The 6-3 decision in Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez was assigned to Thomas despite his dissent in the earlier, foundational case; this new ruling cuts short the opportunity for wrongfully convicted criminal defendants to get their legal challenges fully considered by federal courts.

            The two prisoners in the consolidated cases, David Martinez Ramirez and Barry Lee Jones, were convicted of capital murders and sentenced to death in trials in 1989 and 1994 marked by woefully inadequate lawyering from their defense attorneys. Ramirez’s lawyer failed to present evidence that could have undermined the prosecution’s theory that Ramirez had inflicted the injuries that proved fatal to his girlfriend’s infant daughter.

            Jones’s lawyer failed to present evidence of Jones’s social and psychological history, including evidence of intellectual disability, that could have been considered as mitigating evidence in the capital sentencing hearing.  

            Ramirez and Jones were provided new lawyers to file petitions for post-conviction relief in Arizona courts, who – as it happened – turned out to be ineffective as well. With their state cases defunct, both men filed habeas corpus petitions in federal court in Arizona seeking to reverse the convictions or the death sentences because they had been denied their Sixth Amendment right to counsel in the state court criminal proceedings.

            The federal court judges in the two cases declined to allow them to present evidence to support their IAC claims. On appeal, however, two separate panels of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held, in light of Martinez v. Ryan, that Ramirez and Jones were both entitled to full hearings at the district court level. The state’s director of corrections, David Shinn, asked the Supreme Court to review that decision and block Ramirez and Jones from any further pursuit of their Sixth Amendment rights.

            Writing for the six Republican-appointed conservatives in the Supreme Court decision, Thomas stressed the undisputed truism that federal habeas corpus, a long-recognized remedy for constitutional violations,  is not a substitute for the ordinary appellate process in state courts. Thomas went on, however, to describe habeas corpus as an “affront” to the states and their historic primacy for criminal law enforcement within their borders.

In Thomas’s telling, the earlier decision, Martinez v. Ryan, was “unusually explicit about the narrowness of the decision.” He reasoned that the earlier ruling did not allow a full hearing in a federal habeas corpus case just because the petitioner’s postconviction counsel fell short of effective representation. “Permitting federal factfinding would encourage yet more federal litigation of defaulted claims,” Thomas added as he wrapped up his twenty-two page opinion.

            Viewed from a Bill of Rights perspective, the new decision is indeed an affront, but an affront to the Sixth Amendment not to the states. The Framers viewed the right to counsel as an essential safeguard for individual liberties. Two centuries later, the Sixth Amendment has been held applicable to state courts, just as to federal courts, and has also been repeatedly interpreted to require minimally diligent and competent representation by counsel for the accused. Thomas seemed all but oblivious to those precedents, as he ripped up Martinez to shreds. 

            Writing in dissent for the three Democratic-appointed justices, Sotomayor acknowledged that the majority had not specifically overruled the earlier decision, but she argued that the majority had mad the “perverse” judgment not to apply the principle to the analogous situation presented by the two new cases. The majority’s analysis, she argued, “improperly reconfigures the balance Congress struck in [federal habeas corpus law] between state interests and individual constitutional rights.” 

The failure to safeguard the federal courts’ role in policing state criminal matters, Sotomayor wrote in conclusion, made “illusory the protections of the Sixth Amendment.” Sotomayor noted that ineffective-assistance claims typically require extensive factual development beyond the state court record in the trial and direct appeals. Sotomayor argued further that the new ruling would “doom many meritorious trial-ineffectiveness claims that satisfy Martinez.” Breyer and Kagan joined her opinion.

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