Trump judges vote to seriously weaken constitutional right to counsel

Trump Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett cast deciding votes in a 6-3 decision that made it much harder for people to enforce their constitutional right to effective legal assistance in cases criminal. The majority ruled that federal courts cannot consider evidence not available in state court that proves an attorney’s faulty performance. Even new evidence that shows someone’s real innocence cannot be considered according to the majority. Judge Thomas wrote the opinion on May 6-3, 2022 in Shinn vs. Martinez Ramirez. The decision related to two specific cases in the lower courts.

What happened in the lower courts in the Jones case?

An Arizona jury has found Barry Lee Jones guilty of murder in connection with the death of his girlfriend’s daughter. The state claimed that she died from an injury “sustained while she was in [his] care.” A judge sentenced him to death.

His lawyer, however, did not “undertake even a superficial investigation”, as Judge Sonia Sotomayor explained. As a result, the attorney did not discover or present to the jury “readily available medical evidence that might have shown” that the girl was injured “while not in Jones’ custody.”

Under Arizona law, Jones’ first chance to discuss his attorney’s incompetence occurred during the state’s post-conviction review. Unlike state law, however, a state court appointed a post-conviction attorney who did not meet the minimum qualifications. Accordingly, this attorney “made no argument” or presented any evidence that Jones’ trial attorney improperly failed to investigate medical evidence that might have exonerated him.

With a competent federal attorney in post-conviction proceedings, a hearing concluded that the evidence showed the injuries to the girl “could not have been inflicted at the time” Jones was with her. The federal court also found that Jones State’s attorneys were clearly incompetent. According to the 2012 Supreme Court decision in Martinez versus Ryan, the court continued, the issue was properly raised for the first time in federal court because state court attorneys incompetently failed to do so.

The Ninth Circuit rejected the state’s claim that federal law precluded presenting the evidence in federal court first. The Supreme Court decided to reconsider the case.

What happened in the lower courts regarding the Ramirez case?

In a separate case, another Arizona court found David Ramirez guilty and sentenced him to death in connection with the deaths of his girlfriend and daughter. But his trial attorney inexplicably failed to present evidence to a court-appointed psychologist of his intellectual disability or develop an allegation of intellectual disability to counter the proposed death sentence. Ramirez’s post-conviction state attorney did not develop and plead his attorney’s incompetence at trial. It was “despite being aware” of clear indications of possible intellectual disabilities.

In federal court, Ramirez’s attorney after his conviction developed compelling evidence of his disability that his state attorneys had never pursued. This included evidence of the “extent of abuse and neglect Ramirez suffered as a child” and “lifelong manifestations of his possible disability”.

Although the federal court initially denied Ramirez’s federal attorney the opportunity to further develop the disability claim, the state conceded on appeal that his attorney after the state’s conviction “did wrongfully.” The Ninth Circuit ruled that under Martinez, Ramirez should be given the opportunity to establish his claims. Indeed, his lawyer’s “ineffective representation” after his conviction had “barred” him “from such a development”. The Supreme Court decided to reconsider the case.

What did the Supreme Court majority do?

The 6-3 majority vacated the Ninth Homer in both cases and ruled that neither Jones nor Ramirez could pursue their claims. Net result: both remain condemned to death.

According to the majority, federal death penalty law, as properly construed, prohibits a post-conviction federal court from holding a hearing or “otherwise considering[ing]”any evidence ‘beyond the state court record.'” This remains true, according to the majority, even when the record is arguably inadequate “based” on “the ineffective assistance of counsel for the Condition after conviction”.

According to the majority, a convicted person must “be[r] liability for all attorney errors” during post-conviction proceedings, including “failure to develop the state’s post-conviction case.” Thomas asserted that the previous Martinez ruling only provided a “cause” to “pardon a procedural flaw” and did not justify a federal court considering factual issues for the first time because state counsel failed to do so in a manner incompetent.

What did the dissent say and what is the impact of the decision?

Justice Sotomayor strongly dissented on behalf of herself and Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. She explained that the majority’s decision undermines the “fundamental principle” that the Sixth Amendment “guarantees” the “right to effective counsel at trial.” The result, she continued, will leave “many people” convicted of “violation” of this right “to face incarceration or even execution” without any possibility of asserting their rights, even in cases involving claims of actual innocence like Jones.

Sotomayor painstakingly explained how the majority had improperly ‘everything but canceled[d]” Martinez and another recent Court precedent. These decisions have made it clear that a federal court after conviction may properly consider new evidence when the attorney’s prior incompetence prevented its consideration by a state court. Instead, Sotomayor criticized, the majority finding that it is the defendant who is somehow “at fault” for state counsel’s “ineffective assistance” post-conviction in presenting the case. ‘affair. This position, wrote Sotomayor, is a “perverse” and “illogical” and “gut” precedent.

Sotomayor carefully explained how neither precedent nor federal law justifies the result. Because of the court’s ruling, Sotomayor concluded, for people who receive ineffective assistance from counsel in state court, “the Sixth Amendment guarantee is now void.”

The Court’s decision drew immediate criticism. A lawyer for Jones and Ramirez called him “tragic” and a “breach of fundamental fairness”. The problem becomes particularly serious, he explained, in a case like Jones where a federal court has evidence that a person “did not commit the crime” but remains “powerless to offer any relief.” As Professor Leah litman In other words, the decision will have “disastrous” consequences for “anyone who invokes their constitutional right to effective legal assistance”. And as the opinion disclosed in the Dobbs Abortion cases, she continued, “make it clear that the court’s conservative supermajority” is now “committed to breaking and seizing constitutional precedents and rights, whatever the consequences.”

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