A deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a procedural default in state court did not bar a Texas death row inmate from seeking relief in federal court based on the assertion that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel at sentencing.
The normal default rule does not apply when the “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,” wrote Justice Stephen Breyer for the court’s 5-4 majority in Trevino v. Thaler.
Robert Owen, a clinical professor at the University of Texas School of Law, filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the school’s Capital Punishment Clinic. Owen applauded the court for issuing a “practical” decision that he said will require federal courts to carefully examine how hard it actually is to raise ineffective assistance claims in the state courts.
“Trevino makes it more likely that the federal courts will serve as a meaningful backstop to the state courts on the issue of ineffective assistance,” Owen said.
The court’s decision sought to define the scope of an exception to the general procedural default rule it carved out last year in Martinez v. Ryan. In Martinez, the court ruled 7-2 that a procedural default will not bar a federal court from hearing a substantial claim of ineffective assistance at trial if, in the state initial-review collateral proceeding, there was no counsel or if counsel in that proceeding was ineffective.
Tuesday’s decision addressed the death penalty case of Carlos Trevino. In 1997, a Texas jury found Trevino guilty of murdering 15-year-old Linda Salinas. Trevino was sentenced to death after the jury found insufficient mitigating circumstances to warrant a life sentence. Counsel appointed for his direct appeal in state court and counsel appointed for state collateral review failed to argue that Trevino’s trial counsel did not adequately investigate and present mitigating circumstances in the penalty phase of his trial.
When Trevino attempted to raise the ineffective assistance claim concerning his trial counsel in a federal habeas petition, a U.S. District Court stayed the proceedings so Trevino could raise it in state court. The state court found the claim procedurally defaulted because of Trevino’s failure to raise it in his initial post-conviction proceedings in state court.
The district court then said that failure was an independent and adequate state ground barring the federal courts from considering Trevino’s ineffective assistance claim. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in a decision that predated Martinez.
The issue in Trevino’s case was whether the Martinez exception applies when Texas law does not on its face require a defendant initially to raise an ineffective assistance claim regarding trial counsel in a state collateral review proceeding. Rather, Texas law appears to permit, but does not require, a defendant to raise the claim on direct appeal.
According to the state of Texas, that was significant because Martinez dealt with an Arizona procedural law that required a defendant to raise an ineffective assistance claim during his first state collateral review proceeding.
But Breyer found that the differences between Arizona and Texas law were not meaningful for the purposes of applying the Martinez exception to the procedural default rule. Breyer said that was so because, as a “practical matter,” the only method for raising an ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim in Texas is through collateral review.
“[W]e believe 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,” Breyer wrote.
“What the Arizona law prohibited by explicit terms, Texas law precludes as a matter of course. And, that being so, we can find no significant difference between this case and Martinez.”
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. issued a dissent, which was joined by Justice Samuel Alito Jr. Justice Antonin Scalia also wrote a dissent, which was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.
In his dissent, Roberts criticized the majority for taking “all the starch” out of the Martinez rule, predicting that the flood gates have been opened to ineffective assistance claims in federal court.
“This invitation to litigation will … ‘frustrate both the States’ sovereign power to punish offenders and their good-faith attempts to honor constitutional rights,’” Roberts wrote.
Warren A. Wolf, a San Antonio criminal defense attorney, represented Trevino.
Although pleased that his client will have another day in court, Wolf didn’t see the Supreme Court’s decision as a panacea. Wolf said that he wanted the court to overturn the entire default rule as it pertains to ineffective assistance claims.
“This decision simply is an opportunity for my client to have his ineffective assistance of counsel claim reviewed further down the road,” Wolf said.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the decision.