On Tuesday, the Supreme Court handed down two important criminal procedure decisions, both allowing defendants to seek habeas corpus review of their convictions in federal court. The 5-to-4 majority, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the court’s four moderate liberals, reached the right result in each case. But, in a larger sense, the two decisions show how much the scope of habeas review has been curtailed by the Supreme Court in the last three decades, so that it now must work around earlier precedents to avoid doing injustice.
In a case from Texas, Trevino v. Thaler, the court ruled that a death-row inmate in Texas can make the claim of ineffective counsel for the first time in a federal habeas petition because the rules of Texas procedure made it virtually impossible for him to raise that issue during an appeal in state court.
The Michigan and Texas cases show how heavily engaged the court has gotten in the regulation of criminal justice. Even when the court does the right thing, as it did in these two cases, it often appears to be finding exceptions to harsh rules that it created or upheld in earlier cases. In the Texas case, the court further tinkered with “the machinery of death,” to use Justice Harry Blackmun’s phrase, rather than doing what it should have done by now: shut down the machinery by abolishing the death penalty.
"Divided Court, in 2 Rulings, Makes It Easier to Challenge Criminal Convictions," is the Times news coverage of the two cases, written by Adam Liptak.
In a pair of 5-to-4 decisions that divided along ideological lines, the Supreme Court on Tuesday made it easier for inmates to challenge their convictions.
In McQuiggin v. Perkins, No. 12-126, the majority said that a one-year filing deadline for prisoners seeking federal review of their state court convictions under a 1996 law may be relaxed if they present compelling evidence of their innocence. The new “miscarriage of justice exception” to the deadline, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, “applies to a severely confined category” — cases in which no reasonable juror aware of the new evidence would have voted to convict the defendant.
The decision did not seem likely to help the prisoner whose case was under review, but the exception it announced drew a barbed dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia, who called the majority opinion “a series of transparent non sequiturs” and “a flagrant breach of the separation of powers.”
In dissent, Justice Scalia wrote that “there is not a whit of precedential support” for the idea that the Supreme Court was entitled to alter the deadline set out in the 1996 law. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas joined all of the dissent, and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined most of it.
Justice Ginsburg dismissed the dissent as “bluster.”
In the second decision issued Tuesday, in Trevino v. Thaler, No. 11-10189, the same five-justice majority extended a ruling last year that had allowed prisoners to challenge their state convictions in federal courts based on the argument that their trial lawyers had been ineffective, even though the prisoners had not raised the issue in earlier proceedings.
In the decision last year, in Martinez v. Ryan, a seven-justice majority considered Arizona’s criminal justice system, which required claims of ineffective assistance of counsel to be raised in a separate state post-conviction challenge, in which there is no right to a lawyer, and not in the direct appeal from the conviction, in which there is. The Supreme Court ruled that federal courts may hear challenges to Arizona convictions based on claims of ineffective assistance at trial if the prisoner had no lawyer in the separate proceeding or if that lawyer was also ineffective.
“By deliberately choosing to move trial-ineffectiveness claims outside the direct-appeal process, where counsel is constitutionally guaranteed, the state significantly diminishes prisoners’ ability to file such claims,” Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority in the Martinez decision.
The new case considered Texas’ system, which appears to encourage but not require that such claims be raised in a separate proceeding. Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, said that difference did not matter. “What the Arizona law prohibited by explicit terms,” he wrote, “Texas precludes as a matter of course.”
"Supremes Agree Texas Inmate Should Have Appeal Heard," is the Ausin Chronicle report by Jordan Smith.
A 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that Texas death row inmate Carlos Trevino may raise for the first time in his federal appeal a claim that his trial lawyer was ineffective in not investigating and presenting mitigating evidence at trial that may have spared his life.
The Court of Criminal Appeals and the federal district and appeals courts previously ruled that Trevino forfeited that claim by not raising it in his state habeas appeal; Trevino argues that the appellate lawyer was also ineffective for not discovering and raising the issue that his trial attorney's performance was deficient.
The ruling, penned by Justice Stephen Breyer, makes applicable to Texas a 2012 ruling in an unrelated case from Arizona. In that case, the court concluded that an inmate could revive in federal court a state-court defaulted claim of ineffective assistance of counsel if there was no meaningful way to previously raise the issue.
In arguing before the Supremes in February, the state argued that the ruling in that Arizona case – Martinez v. Ryan – was not applicable to Texas because, unlike in Arizona, defendants have an opportunity to first raise ineffective assistance claims on their first, record-based direct appeal.
But because of deadlines and other constraints inherent in the Texas legal scheme, there really becomes no ability to meaningfully raise on direct appeal a claim of ineffective assistance at trial, the court ruled.
"U.S. Supreme Court Expands Post-Conviction Appeals," is by Joy Diaz for KUT-FM News.
Jim Marcus with UT Law School’s Capital Punishment Clinic, says today’s 5 to 4 decision means people will now be able to appeal their convictions on the basis of poor representation even in federal court. Marcus filed a “friend of the court brief” in the case of Treviño v. Thaler.
“This is a capital case, the Treviño case,” Marcus said, “but this decision applies to all prisoners, not just death sentence prisoners.”
Even with today’s Supreme Court decision, Marcus says it’s extremely difficult to prove poor representation. Although sleeping attorneys are not very common, he said poor representation by omission is widespread.
Slate posts, "An Innocent Extension," by Emily Bazelon, focused on the Perkins case.
In 1996, Congress cracked down on defendants who repeatedly try to go to court to overturn their convictions. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), signed by President Bill Clinton, created a thicket of new requirements for people in prison who file last-ditch appeals—called habeas corpus petitions. The idea was that once you’ve lost your first and only direct appeal, you should only get a single try at habeas corpus (the “great writ,” dating from the 14th century, that allows a prisoner to sue his warden for release). And you were supposed to get moving quickly: The law generally imposed a new deadline of one year from the date on which you lost your direct appeal.
Congress made an exception, however: If you say you have new evidence, then you have one year from the day you could have discovered it through “the exercise of due diligence.” But what if you miss the deadline without any good excuse—and yet the new evidence could show that you are innocent? On Tuesday, the Supreme Court widened what it called the “gateway” to reviewing claims of actual innocence that are made long after the one-year deadline expires. It’s a 5-4 decision, split between liberals-plus-Kennedy and conservatives. The opinions, by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia, read like a pitched battle in a long-simmering war. At the end, Ginsburg succeeds in opening what she calls a “gateway” to court for innocence claims that blow by the one-year deadline. But it’s probably not wide enough for Floyd Perkins, the prisoner at the center of this case, to get his own habeas petition heard.
For Scalia, the moral of the story is clear: Innocence doesn’t—and shouldn’t—always win. “This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent,” he wrote in 2009. Scalia lost that time, too. But in the end, the man he was writing about—Troy Davis—was executed for the murder of a Georgia police officer even though seven of the nine witnesses who testified against him at trial had recanted.