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Supreme Court rules on ineffective assistance of counsel claim

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 7-2 [opinion, PDF] Tuesday in Martinez v. Ryan [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] on a defendant's ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Luis Mariano Martinez was convicted on two sexual assault counts related to the alleged rape of his stepdaughter and is serving consecutive sentences of 35 to life. During the pendency of his direct appeal, his counsel brought a collateral attack against his conviction by filing a petition for post-conviction relief. The petition did not raise a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel during the trial despite mistakes by Martinez's counsel including a failure to object to expert witness testimony that was inadmissible under state law. Under Arizona law, the post-conviction relief petition was the first place Martinez could raise such a claim. Martinez brought a second action for post-conviction relief, but the Arizona state courts found the claim to be procedurally barred because of a failure to raise it in the first petition. Martinez is seeking federal review of whether he can bring a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel against his appeal counsel for failure to raise the same claim against his trial counsel. Martinez argues that since the right to effective assistance of counsel extends to the first tier of review, he should be able to challenge his post-conviction relief petition because that was the first opportunity for him to raise an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. In an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court held:

Where, under state law, claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel must be raised in an initial-review collateral proceeding, a procedural default will not bar a federal habeas court from hearing a substantial claim of ineffective assistance at trial if, in the initial-review collateral proceeding, there was no counsel or counsel in that proceeding was ineffective.
The ruling reversed a decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which held [opinion, PDF] that since there is no right to appointment of counsel during a defendant's post-conviction relief petition there is no right to effective assistance of counsel. Justice Antonin Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.

The court heard arguments [JURIST report] in the case in October. Martinez's attorney argued that the Ninth Circuit's ruling deprived his client of his constitutional right to counsel and that counsel should be extended to any "first-tier review issue," especially considering that evidence of attorney negligence could present itself years after the trial. The state of Arizona brought up the costs and impracticality of the rule: "This Court has never—has never said that every claim that can only be raised for the first time entitles someone to—to counsel. And that exception, that would—that would swallow the rule."

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Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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