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March 01, 2012

U.S. Supreme Court Issues Landmark Ruling about Representation in Post-Conviction Proceedings

Becca Eden

On March 20, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a major decision in Martinez v. Ryan concerning the conduct of counsel in state post-conviction proceedings. Although the Court declined to reconsider its prior holding that there is no constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel in state post-conviction proceedings, the Court announced an equitable rule that has the potential to impact death row prisoners across the country. 

In Martinez, the Court examined the case of an Arizona prisoner whose claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel were precluded from federal habeas review because they had not been properly raised in earlier proceedings. Luis Martinez, who had been convicted of sexual conduct with a minor, was appointed an attorney to represent him on direct appeal. While that appeal was pending, Mr. Martinez’s attorney commenced state post-conviction proceedings without notifying her client. The attorney later filed a statement that she could not find any colorable claims to raise in post-conviction proceedings, and the post-conviction action was dismissed. A year and a half later, with new counsel, Mr. Martinez filed a new notice for post-conviction relief alleging that his trial counsel had been ineffective, but the petition was dismissed on the grounds that the claim was defaulted and should have been raised in his first post-conviction proceeding. The federal district court denied Mr. Martinez’s federal habeas petition, relying on the Supreme Court’s holding in Coleman v. Thompson that attorney errors in post-conviction proceedings do not qualify as cause to excuse procedural default.

After the Ninth Circuit affirmed, the Supreme Court granted certiorari on the question of whether there was a federal constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel to raise ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims in certain state post-conviction proceedings where those proceedings presented the first opportunity to raise such claims. Writing for the Court’s 7-2 majority, Justice Kennedy first determined this was not the case to decide whether there was a right to effective counsel in post-conviction proceedings under the federal constitution and instead held that, where as a matter of state law claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel must be raised for the first time in state post-conviction proceedings, a federal habeas court will not be barred by procedural default rules from hearing those claims if there was no counsel or counsel was ineffective in the first post-conviction proceeding.

This decision has the potential to impact prisoners across the country, including prisoners on death row. Like Arizona, eleven other states that administer the death penalty require claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel to be brought for the first time in post-conviction proceedings. Several other states similarly place restrictions on a prisoner’s ability to bring these claims during direct appeal, but only in certain circumstances. For prisoners in those states facing procedurally defaulted claims regarding the effectiveness of their trial counsel, the Court’s decision in Martinez provides a new opportunity to argue that their claims should be heard on the merits in federal habeas proceedings. 

This decision, along with several other recent decisions, may indicate a new awareness by the Court of the many problems faced by death row prisoners when they seek representation in post-conviction proceedings.  See Hutchinson v. Florida, No.10-14978, 2012 WL 1345599, *6 (11th Cir. Apr. 19, 2012) (Barkett, J. concurring).  There is still no federal constitutional right to counsel in post-conviction proceedings, however, and hundreds of death row prisoners in many states remain without legal representation.  

Becca Eden

Staff Attorney