Supreme Court hears arguments in criminal procedure cases

Supreme Court hears arguments in criminal procedure cases

The US Supreme Court on Monday heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] in two criminal procedure cases.

In Ayestas v. Davis [transcript, PDF] the petitioner, Carlos Manuel Ayestas, a Texas death-row inmate, filed a habeas petition for ineffective assistance of counsel. The case challenges 18 USC § 3599(f), which provides that “federal courts in capital cases involving indigent defendants (including suits for post-conviction relief) should fund ‘investigative, expert, or other services [that] are reasonably necessary for the representation of the defendant, whether in connection with issues relating to guilt or the sentence.'”

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the standard for “reasonably necessary” is the “substantial need” for those services, meaning a claimant will receive funding for representation in the case challenging the previous ineffective counsel only when the petitioner can substantiate the claims for ineffective counsel. In other words, the petitioner must not have only speculative evidence of ineffectiveness to fund representation for challenging his trial lawyer’s effectiveness. The Supreme Court will determine if the Fifth Circuit Court’s standard it too high for federal habeas petitions.

During arguments, Ayesta’s counsel highlighted why the standard may be detrimental. To show a “substantial need” the counsel challenging the trial lawyer’s effectiveness must conduct significant investigation of his client’s claims before he is given funding to do so. The petitioner’s counsel suggested the correct interpretation for “reasonably necessary” is what a reasonable attorney for a client of finite means would believe is necessary to show the petitioner has a legitimate claim for ineffective counsel and the court should grant additional funds as requested to the petitioner’s counsel in investigating the claims.

The second criminal procedure case, Wilson v. Sellers [transcript, PDF], concerns whether a federal court in a habeas case should “look through” a summary state-court ruling to review the last reasoned state-court decision. Petitioner Marion Wilson, a Georgia death row inmate, filed a federal habeas petition after the state habeas court denied relief despite substantial evidence of his claim for an ineffective trial lawyer, and the Georgia Supreme Court denied his request to appeal.

In suggesting the appellate court should “look through” to the last reasoned court decision, Wilson argues that in determining whether the lower court erred in its decision, the court should not look to the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision because that court ruled on his petition for appeal, which concerns the state habeas court’s decision, not just the trial court’s decision and reasoning as was the situation when the state habeas court assessed Wilson’s claim. In this situation, Wilson argues the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision was a “summary decision,” and, under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), is not an “adjudication on the merits” to which as federal habeas court must defer.

The Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides concerning which court decisions should be considered a “decision on the merits.” The state argues [brief, PDF] that, “requiring a ‘look through’ approach would force a state appellate court ‘to provide a statement of reasons to prevent a federal court, on habeas review, from treating the decision of that state appellate court as a rubberstamp of the opinion below.'” This argument suggests that the summary decision endorses the last reasoned decision and should be a “decision on the merits” for purposes of the AEDPA. This differs from Wilson’s argument that the analysis will shift from what the state court might have said to what it actually said, which will affect only few cases.

If the Supreme Court adopts Wilson’s argument, the decision “would instruct federal habeas courts to ignore a reasoned state-court opinion in favor of a summary denial of a right to appeal, and in a capital case with a substantial ineffective-assistance claim to boot.” The court will assess its previous rulings in Harrington v. Richter [text, PDF] and Ylst v. Nunnemaker [Cornell, text] in determining which argument aligns with the AEDPA.