US Supreme Court hears oral arguments in religious school funding and effective counsel cases
MarkThomas / Pixabay
US Supreme Court hears oral arguments in religious school funding and effective counsel cases

The US Supreme Court Wednesday heard oral arguments in cases concerning state funding for religious private schools and proceedings for incarcerated people challenging their convictions due to incompetent counsel.

In Carson v. Makin, the court will determine whether Maine’s scheme of outsourcing public education to secular private schools by compensating parents for the cost of tuition violates the free exercise clause because it excludes religious schools. Maine created this system of contracting with private schools to ensure students who live in districts that do not operate their own secondary schools still receive a free education that is adjacent to a public school experience. They define that experience as one that “exposes children to diverse viewpoints, promotes tolerance and acceptance, teaches academic subjects in a religiously-neutral manner, and does not promote a particular faith or belief system.”

The court recently ruled that states cannot exclude faith-based schools from state-subsidized tuition assistance programs on the basis of their religious status. The question that was argued today was if they could be excluded on the basis of religious use of the government funds.

Justice Sotomayor in oral arguments said that the state’s program merely presents the same opportunities to parents of children whose districts do have public schools: “Either get a free public secular education or pay for your religious training.” Justice Kavanaugh stated that where one student in a district without a public school could have their tuition at a secular private school covered and another would be denied for attending a religious private school, “[t]hat’s just discrimination on the basis of religion right there at the neighborhood level.”

The second oral argument, Shinn v. Ramirez and Jones, involved two men who were sentenced to death and denied their right to raise new evidence of ineffective counsel post-trial. Arizona currently limits the right to counsel in criminal cases to the trial phase and the direct appeal. For post-conviction claims, which are also the first opportunity people have to introduce new evidence to support the issue of incompetent counsel, there is no right to counsel.

Previous cases have established that incarcerated people may raise issues of ineffective counsel in federal courts, but the state of Arizona argued that this is overcome by a provision of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) which asserts that federal courts cannot consider any evidence not first introduced in state court.

Justices Alito and Gorsuch raised the issue of whether guaranteeing counsel at this phase would cause backlogs, but overall, the justices expressed hesitancy to follow Arizona’s request to overturn previous decisions on this issue. Pointing out the contradiction’s in Arizona’s proposed process, Chief Justice Roberts said, “If you do get the right to raise the claim for the first time because your counsel was incompetent before, surely, you have the right to get the evidence that’s necessary to support your claim.”