The Supreme Court began its early-summer ruling season a bit early this year, starting with an opinion from Justice Thomas (R) that will make it easier for the state to kill innocent people:
[The] opinion claimed that a law restricting the power of federal courts to toss out convictions in state courts prevents Jones from seeking relief. But Thomas’s reading of this law is novel — his opinion had to gut two fairly recent Supreme Court decisions to deny relief to Jones.
Before Monday, the Supreme Court’s decisions in Martinez v. Ryan (2012) and Trevino v. Thaler (2013) should have guaranteed Jones a new trial. Both decisions deal with what should happen in the unusual circumstance when someone accused of a crime receives ineffective assistance of counsel, twice.
In Strickland v. Washington (1984), the Supreme Court held that a conviction must be tossed out if defense “counsel’s performance was deficient” and if this “deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” This safeguard against constitutionally inadequate lawyering would be meaningless if people who received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial could not challenge that conviction, either on appeal or in some other proceeding.
Martinez and Trevino established that someone convicted of a crime must have at least one shot at challenging their conviction on the grounds that they received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial.
“The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to the effective assistance of counsel at trial,” [Justice] Sotomayor (I) writes in the first line of her dissent. She continues that “this Court has recognized that right as ‘a bedrock principle’ that constitutes the very ‘foundation for our adversary system’ of criminal justice.”
Thus in Sotomayor’s mind, and in the minds of the two other justices appointed by Democratic presidents who joined her opinion, the purpose of a criminal trial is to determine whether or not someone is actually guilty of a crime — and to do so through an adversarial process where both sides are represented by lawyers who can present the best possible legal and factual case for the prosecution and the defense.
This is consistent with Thomas’s longtime position. As far back as Herrera v. Collins (1993), Thomas joined an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, which claimed that there is “no basis” in the Constitution for “a right to demand judicial consideration of newly discovered evidence of innocence brought forward after conviction.” At the time, however, Thomas was the only justice who joined Scalia in this view.
Scotusblog also has its doubts:
Thomas spent the first 11 pages of his 22-page opinion recounting the grisly facts of the murders the defendants were convicted of, extolling the states’ authority to enforce criminal laws, and emphasizing the importance of the finality of convictions. Finally arriving at the issue at hand, Thomas cited cases holding that defendants are generally held responsible for their attorneys’ errors, and noted that while that general rule does not apply when counsel is constitutionally ineffective, the Sixth Amendment does not guarantee a right to counsel at the post-conviction stage – therefore, at this stage, the defendants were “at fault.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, dissented. Her opinion was striking, even for a justice who is known for passionate dissents. She called the majority opinion “perverse,” “illogical,” and said it “makes no sense.”
The dissent zeroed in on the court’s prior holdings that the procedural default rule only applies to defendants who are “at fault” for failing to raise a claim, and that a defendant represented by a constitutionally ineffective lawyer cannot be held to be “at fault” for his lawyer’s errors. This requirement underscored what Sotomayor saw as the core absurdity in the majority’s reasoning: “A petitioner cannot logically be faultless for not bringing a claim because of postconviction counsel’s ineffectiveness, yet at fault for not developing its evidentiary basis for exactly the same reason.”
The debate between Thomas and Sotomayor in Shinn has reverberations beyond the cases of Barry Lee Jones and David Martinez Ramirez. Sotomayor argued that the majority opinion “tellingly” relied on dissents in Martinez and Trevino to support its reasoning. While the conservative majority’s explicit overruling of precedent has recently captured the public’s attention (albeit through a leaked draft), the practice of citing dissents to “hollow out” past precedents has garnered less scrutiny. But Sotomayor’s opinion subtly emphasized the danger that practice poses for the legitimacy of the court’s decision-making. Noting that the court in this case “resuscitates” an argument “that previously was relegated to a dissent,” Sotomayor contended that the argument “is just as unavailing now that it has captured a majority.”
Finally, one procedural quirk is worth mentioning in a case all about whether death row defendants are “at fault” for the failures of their constitutionally ineffective lawyers. In Ramirez’s case, Arizona did not object to the evidentiary hearing in the district court and did not raise AEDPA’s bar on developing new evidence until the case reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Ordinarily, an argument not raised in the district court is forfeited. But here, in a footnote, Thomas stated that the Supreme Court has “discretion to forgive any forfeiture” and because deciding the issue would reduce the likelihood of future litigation, “we choose to forgive the State’s forfeiture before the District Court.”
We will no doubt see a series of rulings like this, shielding the state from its errors while making life much more random and unforgiving for people already at a disadvantage economically or socially. As I hinted yesterday, authoritarians don't accept dissent of any kind, no matter how obviously stupid their own positions. Thomas wants to live in the world of Inspector Javert and Brazil. So, clearly, do the other four Republicans on the Supreme Court, and for some reason in this case, the Chief Justice.
We're in for a decade or so of really bad judicial outcomes. Let's hope we can get the pendulum swinging the other way soon.