Published on: Monday, May 23, 2022

Today, in Shinn v. Martinez, No. 20-1009 (May 23, 2022), a divided Supreme Court held, under §2254(e)(2), a federal habeas court may not conduct an evidentiary hearing or otherwise consider evidence beyond the state-court record based on the ineffective assistance of state postconviction counsel.  Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C.J., and Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanagh, and Barrett, JJ., joined. Sotomayor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Breyer and Kagan, JJ., joined.

Respondents David Martinez Ramirez and Berry Lee Jones committed murders in separate cases that put them on Arizona’s death row in 1989 and 1994, respectively. A district court denied Ramirez’s federal habeas petition in 2010, and Jones was denied relief in 2008. While their appeals were pending in the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court decided Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1 (2012), which created a new equitable exception to its procedural default doctrine, allowing a prisoner to excuse the default of a substantial trial counsel ineffectiveness claim upon a showing that state post-conviction counsel was ineffective in failing to present that claim. After Martinez, the Ninth Circuit gave Ramirez and Jones the opportunity to seek reconsideration of ineffective-assistance of counsel claims previously dismissed as procedurally defaulted. On remand, Ramirez asked for an evidentiary hearing on whether his post-conviction counsel was ineffective under Martinez, but the district court bypassed the Martinez inquiry without an evidentiary hearing and concluded the claim was procedurally barred because trial post-conviction counsel was not ineffective. The Ninth Circuit held that the district court applied an incorrect standard, concluded that Ramirez has satisfied Martinez to excuse his procedural default, and was entitled to further factual development to litigate his trial counsel’s ineffectiveness. On remand in Jones’s case, the district court granted conditional habeas relief after holding an evidentiary hearing and considering evidence not developed in state court. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Reversing the Ninth Circuit, Justice Thomas framed the issue this way:

The question presented is whether the equitable rule announced in Martinez permits a federal court to dispense with §2254(e)(2)’s narrow limits because a prisoner’s state postconviction counsel negligently failed to develop thestate-court record. We conclude that it does not.

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan, begins:

The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to the effective assistance of counsel at trial. This Court has recognized that right as “a bedrock principle” that constitutes the very “foundation for our adversary system” of criminal justice. Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U. S. 1, 12 (2012). Today, however, the Court hamstrings the federal courts’ authority to safeguard that right. The Court’s decision will leave many people who were convicted in violation of the Sixth Amendment to face incarceration or even execution without any meaningful chance to vindicate their right to counsel.

In reaching its decision, the Court all but overrules two recent precedents that recognized a critical exception to the general rule that federal courts may not consider claims on habeas review that were not raised in state court. Just 10

years ago, the Court held that a federal court may consider a habeas petitioner’s substantial claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel (a “trial-ineffectiveness” claim), even if not presented in state court, if the State barred the petitioner from asserting that claim until state postconviction proceedings, and the petitioner’s counsel in those proceedings was also ineffective. See id., at 17; see also Trevino v. Thaler, 569 U. S. 413, 429 (2013). Martinez and Trevino establish that such a petitioner is not at fault for any failure to bring a trial-ineffectiveness claim in state court. Despite these precedents, the Court today holds that such a petitioner is nonetheless at fault for the ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel in developing the evidence of trial ineffectiveness in state court. The Court instead holds that a petitioner in these circumstances, having received ineffective assistance of trial and postconviction counsel, is barred from developing such evidence in federal court.

This decision is perverse. It is illogical: It makes no sense to excuse a habeas petitioner’s counsel’s failure to raise a claim altogether because of ineffective assistance in postconviction proceedings, as Martinez and Trevino did, but to fault the same petitioner for that postconviction counsel’s failure to develop evidence in support of the trial-ineffectiveness claim. In so doing, the Court guts Martinez’s and Trevino’s core reasoning. The Court also arrogates power from Congress: The Court’s analysis improperly reconfigures the balance Congress struck in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) between state interests and individual constitutional rights. By the Court’s telling, its holding (however implausible) is compelled by statute. Make no mistake. Neither AEDPA nor this Court’s precedents require this result. I respectfully dissent.

Merits briefing is available on the Supreme Court's docket here, and the oral argument is available here.  The Ninth Circuit opinion below is here.