2013 SCOTUS Round-up: Criminal Justice Edition, Part 2
Sara McDermott, Public Interest Law Intern

Earlier, we posted the first installment in a series focusing on the Supreme Court’s major criminal law decisions last term that relate directly to TCP’s work. Today, we continue with analysis of a pair of cases that, in the words of TCP’s President Virginia Sloan, “reaffirmed the importance of justice above legal niceties and procedural technicalities.”

Trevino v. Thaler

In Trevino v. Thaler, the Court considered whether to extend a Sixth Amendment ineffective assistance of counsel case from last term, Martinez v. Ryan, to a new context. In Martinez, the Court expanded the appellate rights of individuals claiming that their trial counsel was ineffective.  The Court ruled that, in states where defendants are required to wait until after all direct appeals have been completed (called a “post-conviction proceeding”) before bringing a claim in state court that his or her trial counsel was ineffective, a defendant should also have access to federal courts to bring these claims, even if he or she has missed certain federal filing deadlines.

The Court’s decision in Martinez would allow a defendant to bring his or her claim in federal court through a writ of habeas corpus when the defendant either 1) was not provided counsel in the state post-conviction hearing at all, or 2) was provided ineffective assistance of counsel at that hearing.  Basically, the issue before the Court was: what happens when the defendant’s trial counsel was ineffective, but the attorney assigned to represent him or her on appeal is also ineffective—and therefore fails to assert an ineffective assistance of counsel claim regarding the first attorney’s work? Or, what if the defendant was not provided counsel at all, and so had no one to bring the ineffective assistance of counsel claim? In Martinez, the Court found that in such a case, the defendant has a remedy: he or she may bring a federal habeas claim alleging ineffective assistance of counsel at trial and on appeal.

Trevino presented a slightly different question: will defendants have access to federal courts where a state law technically allows a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on direct appeal, but procedurally such a claim is virtually impossible to bring until post-conviction review? In some states, including Texas, issues of timing conspire to prevent defendants from bringing an ineffective assistance of counsel claim until after all direct appeals have been completed, even though by law they may bring the claim earlier.

The Court covered this potential loophole in its jurisprudence by extending Martinez to cover these states. Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, found that “[w]hat the [Martinez] 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.”

Because the effect of Texas’s law in practice was to prevent defendants from bringing ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims on direct appeal, the Court was compelled to treat Trevino as it did Martinez. Otherwise, the Court risked creating a loophole whereby states could technically allow ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims on direct appeal, while actually making such claims virtually impossible to bring thanks to procedural impediments and obstacles. In that case, Martinez would become a right in name only. Trevino thus served to buttress the Court’s important opinion in Martinez by ensuring to allow defendants like those in Texas to bring ineffective assistance of counsel claims in federal court.

McQuiggin v. Perkins

The same day that it decided Trevino, the Court also addressed the question of whether a defendant who presents a credible claim of actual innocence can be exempted from AEDPA’s statute of limitations that would otherwise prevent him or her from filing a habeas petition. Once again, in a victory for justice, the Court decided that actual innocence creates an equitable exception to the rule.

AEDPA contains a provision stating that a post-conviction claim based on newly discovered evidence must be brought within one year of when the evidence is discovered or would have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence. Perkins, the defendant in the case, was convicted of murder and given a life sentence. Several years after his conviction became final, Perkins obtained affidavits from several witnesses pointing to another man (a witness against Perkins at trial) as the real perpetrator. However, Perkins waited six years to file an ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on this evidence, due to the fact that he did not have an attorney and was representing himself. Perkins argued that, reasons for the delay aside, because the evidence supported a finding of actual innocence he should be excused from the AEDPA’s statute of limitations bar.

Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority, found that where a defendant can credibly show he or she has evidence of actual innocence, there should be an equitable exception (the “miscarriage of justice” exception) to AEDPA’s statute of limitations. According to the majority, diligence should not be a threshold question, but instead should be one factor for a court to consider when deciding on the credibility of the defendant’s actual innocence claim. Thus, as the majority held, if the court finds the claim to be credible, lack of diligence should not be held against the defendant. Justice Ginsburg emphasized that an exception to the AEDPA statute of limitations in the case of actual innocence, even though it is not explicitly provided for in the statute, is so relevant to questions of justice that it must be recognized by the Court.

This ruling was a victory for due process and the rule of law. The Court recognized that, where evidence of actual innocence arises, procedural impediments should not bar the operation of justice. Innocent people who have been incarcerated due to a malfunction in the system can now be assured that they have a path to pursue an appeal when they uncover evidence of their innocence, without regard to how long it may take to file a claim.

The views expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of TCP, its committees, or boards. 

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