Monday, October 10, 2011

Martinez v. Ryan

Tuesday at the Court was not a good day for the legal system's reputation.  First, the Court heard about the trifecta of bad lawyers representing Maples, then a challenge of ineffective counsel against two state-appointed lawyers in Arizona. And at the end of all that, the Court still had Martinez.

Martinez was tried and convicted for sexually assaulting his step-daughter, a girl under the age of fifteen. During his appeal, he wanted to challenge that his appointed trial lawyer was ineffective for failing to (among other things) challenge the prosecution's expert witness, provide an expert witness for his defense, and challenge information presented by the prosecution that had thin scientific value.

Under Arizona law, Martinez could challenge his conviction under a direct appeal, but could not bring up the issue of ineffective counsel until a post-conviction appeal (in shorthand it's referred to as "Rule 32"). There's a good flowchart of Arizona's criminal process here. When the state appointed him a new attorney for the process, she filed the direct appeal, but also filed a post-conviction notice that she did not find a valid claim for challenging the trial lawyer's conduct.

(This is part of her duty as post-conviction defense: she has to either file a claim for post-conviction relief or submit a statement that she did not discover any valid claim for relief. However, she is also supposed to notify her client of the decision, and Martinez' counsel sent him the notice in English, whereas he can only understand Spanish.)

Her statement made it impossible for Martinez to make his Rule 32 challenge. He filed a federal habeas challenge arguing that his appeallate counsel was also ineffective, and requested a third state-appointed counsel for his initial "ineffective trial lawyer" argument. He was denied on the basis that he had already received his appellate counsel, and the state did not need to give him another.

After all this, the question before the Supreme Court is whether or not Martinez should receive state-appointed counsel - and it seems the Court might actually give it to him (in a limited way, of course).

The biggest concern, by far, was the "slippery slope" argument - if they give Martinez a state-appointed lawyer here and he loses that appeal, then he could just challenge that his new lawyer was ineffective, and then they'd have to appoint another that he could challenge again. And so on, and so forth.

It's a meme.
This argument seemed to really strike home with Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Scalia. But the rest of the justices, including Chief Justice Roberts and excluding Justice Thomas, seemed to be searching for a limiting principle. The fact that Martinez had never really had the opportunity to challenge his first trial lawyer might make it more difficult to outright deny his claim, but the justices will never go for a principle that opens the states to the heavy-cost of supplying an endless line of lawyers for Martinez to challenge.

We will probably see an incredibly narrow principle that has little to no collateral impact outside of Arizona. When Arizona, or a state with similar post-trial procedures, decides to allow convicted criminals to argue ineffective counsel only during the post-conviction appeal, then that state must provide a lawyer. This leaves Arizona free to draw a hard line against providing post-post conviction lawyers directly after the first post-conviction lawyer.

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