May 23, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Divided Supreme Court limits access to federal court review in death penalty cases

Picture of the Supreme Court building

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Federal judges cannot hear new evidence from death row inmates who argue that their state-appointed lawyers were constitutionally ineffective during state trials, a divided Supreme Court ruled on Monday.

The other side: The dissent argued that the majority's "perverse" and "illogical" opinion effectively ends Sixth Amendment rights to counsel for people who might have been wrongfully convicted.

  • "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," Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, wrote for the dissent.

State of play: Writing for the 6-3 majority, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that two death row inmates in Arizona can’t raise evidence of ineffective counsel during their federal habeas appeal — which allows a constitutional challenge to imprisonment, convictions or sentences — because they had not presented the argument in state court.

  • The death row inmates had argued that their lawyers failed to present evidence that could have exonerated them from death sentences.

Details: "To respect our system of dual sovereignty ... the availability of habeas relief is narrowly circumscribed," Thomas wrote for the majority in Shinn v. Ramirez.

  • "[O]nly rarely may a federal habeas court hear a claim or consider evidence that a prisoner did not previously present to the state courts in compliance with state procedural rules," Thomas added.
  • In the dissent, Sotomayor argued that the majority had overruled past 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."

What they're saying: "The court’s ruling leaves the fundamental constitutional right to trial counsel with no effective mechanism for enforcement in these circumstances," said Robert Loeb, an attorney for the two death row inmates.

  • "It means that a federal court can have evidence that someone ... did not commit the crime supporting the death sentence, but that the court then is helpless to offer any relief," Loeb added, calling the decision " an assault on basic fairness in the criminal justice system." 
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