U.S. Supreme Court Rules Texas Death-Row Prisoner Cannot Challenge Ineffectiveness of His Appeal Lawyer

In a 5-4 decision released June 26, the United States Supreme Court upheld the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, denying review of Texas death-row prisoner Erick Daniel Davila's claim that he had been provided ineffective representation by his state appeal lawyer. The case, Davila v. Davis, raised the question of whether two earlier Supreme Court decisions (Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler) permitted a federal court to review a prisoner's claim that his direct appeal counsel had been ineffective, if—because of his state post-conviction lawyer's ineffectiveness—the appellate ineffectiveness claim had never been presented to the state courts. Davila's federal habeas corpus lawyer challenged an improper jury instruction to which his trial lawyer had objected at trial, but both his direct appeal and his state habeas lawyers failed to raise the issue. When his state habeas lawyer also failed to challenge the adequacy of his appellate lawyer's performance in failing to raise the issue, the federal habeas court ruled that the claim was procedurally defaulted and would not be reviewed. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said that Martinez is limited to claims of trial counsel's ineffectiveness and does not apply to appellate-ineffectiveness claims. "Because a prisoner does not have a constitutional right to counsel in state postconviction proceedings, ineffective assistance in those proceedings does not qualify as cause to excuse a procedural default," Thomas wrote. He said granting prisoners like Davila federal review of meritorious claims of constitutional error "could flood the federal courts with defaulted claims of appellate ineffectiveness," calling that "especially troublesome because those claims could serve as the gateway to federal review of a host of trial errors." Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, arguing that the majority had interpreted Martinez too narrowly. "[E]ffective trial counsel and appellate counsel are inextricably connected elements of a fair trial," Breyer wrote. He added, “[t]he fact that ... nearly a third of convictions or sentences in capital cases are overturned at some stage of review suggests the practical importance of the appeal right, particularly in a capital case such as this one.” The dissent also said the majority’s concern was unfounded that granting review of the type of constitutional violation in Davila's case would overburden federal habeas corpus courts. He wrote, “there is no evidence before us that Martinez has produced a greater-than-expected increase in courts’ workload.”

(J. McCullough, "Texas death row inmate loses at U.S. Supreme Court, could face execution date," The Texas Tribune, June 26, 2017.) Read the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Davila v. Davis. See U.S. Supreme Court and Representation.