By Mary Schmid Mergler, senior counsel for The Constitution Project’s Criminal Justice Program. Mergler is the coauthor with Christopher Durocher of the ACS Issue Brief previewing several several of this term's Supreme Court cases, “The ‘Right-to-Counsel Term.’"
This week the Supreme Court issued three critically important decisions implicating the constitutional right to counsel. Martinez v. Ryan affects the right to counsel during the state collateral appeal process, while Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye will impact the right to counsel long before appeal, before trial even, during plea negotiations.
Martinez v. Ryan
As a fundamental rule in post-conviction review of state criminal convictions, a federal court cannot consider claims that were denied in state court based on an established state procedural rule—a doctrine known as procedural default. The only way for the federal court to consider a claim that has been procedurally defaulted is to find that “cause” existed to excuse the default and “prejudice” resulted. Based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Coleman v. Thompson, attorney errors during collateral proceedings do not constitute “cause” to excuse procedural default, since no constitutional right to counsel on collateral appeal exists.
In Martinez’s case, the first time he was permitted under Arizona law to raise an ineffective-assistance-of-trial counsel (IATC) claim was on collateral appeal; Arizona prohibits IATC claims from being raised on direct appeal. However, without Martinez’s consent, the attorney appointed to represent him on collateral appeal waived his IATC claim, so when he raised it in a successive state petition, it was denied for not having been raised in the initial appeal. And when he subsequently raised it in a federal habeas petition, it was denied based on the doctrine of procedural default.