June 01, 2013

U.S. Supreme Court Extends Ruling Concerning Conduct of Counsel in State Post-Conviction Proceedings

Becca Eden

On May 28, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Trevino v. Thaler, extending last term’s landmark decision in Martinez v. Ryan by a 5-4 majority. Martinez announced an equitable rule allowing federal courts to consider procedurally defaulted claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel where a prisoner was unrepresented during state post-conviction proceedings or the prisoner’s counsel at that stage was ineffective. The Court reasoned that such a rule was necessary to ensure that prisoners have the opportunity to present a claim that their Constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel at trial was violated. That decision, however, was limited to jurisdictions like Arizona, the state where Martinez originated, where state law requires that such claims be raised for the first time in state post-conviction proceedings.

In Texas, direct appeal and state post-conviction proceedings run concurrently. Texas law theoretically permits prisoners to raise ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims on direct appeal, but Texas courts have repeatedly held that it is “virtually impossible” for such claims to be adequately presented on direct appeal. Claims raised on direct appeal must be limited to evidence contained in the trial record, and practically all claims regarding the effectiveness of trial counsel must be supported by new evidence. Texas permits the prisoner to file a motion seeking a new trial, which would allow the record to be further developed in advance of direct appeal proceedings. However, it frequently takes several months for a trial record to be fully transcribed, well beyond the 30-day time limit for filing a motion for a new trial.

Recognizing these practical constraints, the Court held that “the Texas procedural system—as a matter of its structure, design, and operation—does not offer most defendants a meaningful opportunity to present a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on direct appeal” and that there is “no significant difference between this case and Martinez.” Thus, the Court held that the holding in Martinez applies where a “state procedural framework, by reason of its design and operation, makes it highly unlikely in a typical case that a defendant will have a meaningful opportunity to raise a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on direct appeal.” Whereas the Court explicitly limited the Martinez decision to a narrow set of jurisdictions, in Trevino it extended the rule’s applicability with a broad decision that will likely apply to many states.

This extension caused Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, who were members of the 7-2 majority in Martinez, to dissent from the Trevino ruling. Chief Justice Roberts expressed concerns over the majority’s “opaque and malleable” standard and argued that “the questions raised by this equitable equation are as endless as will be the state-by-state litigation it takes to work them out.” Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, also filed a brief dissent, quoting his Martinez dissent from last term, in which he argued that the jurisdictional limitations on the Court’s ruling “lack[] any principled basis, and will not last.”

After issuing its ruling, the Court remanded Trevino and six other Texas cases back to the lower courts for further proceedings consistent with the opinion. The Court remanded two cases from other jurisdictions as well, further signaling that the rule announced in Martinez and Trevino will extend far beyond cases in Arizona and Texas.

Becca Eden