Legal wonks join Sonia Sotomayor in blasting 'repulsive' SCOTUS ruling gutting the 6th Amendment

Legal wonks join Sonia Sotomayor in blasting 'repulsive' SCOTUS ruling gutting the 6th Amendment
United States Supreme Court, 2021.

A ruling handed down by the right-wing United States Supreme Court on Monday that strips convicted felons of the opportunity to present evidence in federal court that they had ineffective counsel is facing ferocious condemnation by legal experts.

The 6-3 majority decision in Shinn versus Ramirez and Jones, authored by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, denied the petitions of two death row inmates in Arizona – David Martinez Ramirez and Barry Lee Jones – to submit proof that their attorneys had failed them at trial. Martinez and Jones argued that as a result, their Sixth Amendment rights to due process and habeas corpus were violated.

Because their appeals were denied at the state level, Thomas declared that Ramirez and Jones had no legal standing to sue federally.

“[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 wrote.

"Such intervention is also an affront to the State and its citizens who returned a verdict of guilt after considering the evidence before them," he said. "Federal courts, years later, lack the competence and authority to relitigate a State’s criminal case."

The Court's three liberal jurists dissented.

"This decision is perverse," Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor opined on behalf of the minority. "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 ... but to fault the same petitioner for that postconviction counsel’s failure to develop evidence in support of the trial-ineffectiveness claim."

She said that "the Court’s decision will leave many people who were convicted in violation of the Sixth Amendment to face incarceration or even execution without any meaningful chance to vindicate their right to counsel.”

Numerous legal experts concurred with Sotomayor, stressing that Monday's precedent-reversing ruling guts the 6th Amendment.

"You can't meaningfully enforce the Sixth Amendment in a state post-conviction proceeding unless you have an ounce of seriousness about the lawyer they are getting in that forum," University of Texas Law Professor Lee Kovarsky tweeted. "And since representation in state post-conviction proceedings is a national embarrassment, it means that it's not a really useful site of Sixth Amendment enforcement."

Kovarsky expanded upon what that means for defendants.

"You can have your claim decided on the merits in federal court, but you cannot INTRODUCE EVIDENCE to prove that claim," he said. "There's a million ways to pick this opinion apart, but here's a simple one. If you get to federal court with incontrovertible evidence of innocence, you can disable procedural bars but that evidence can't be considered on the merits. Your modern Supreme Court, people."

Read his thread below:

University of Texas Law Professor and CNN contributor Steve Vladeck noted that "Thomas holds that habeas courts can't expand the record to take new evidence showing ineffective assistance of state postconviction counsel."

Leah Litman, an associate professor of law at the University of Michigan, agreed.

"It's bad," she Tweeted. "If the state appoints you a lawyer who is constitutionally ineffective at your trial; and then appoints you ANOTHER lawyer who is constitutionally ineffective to argue your trial lawyer was ineffective ... you're screwed. This is just a horrific decision that will close the Martinez exception that allowed litigants to enforce the 6th amendment right to counsel."

Others were far less cordial in her critique.

"HOLY. SHIT," New York City Public Defender Eliza Orleans said. "This decision effectively ensures that innocent people will remain imprisoned. This is radical. This is horrifying. This is extremely scary."

Commercial litigator Akiva Cohen pointed out the obscure insidiousness embedded within Thomas' annotations.

"I don't think I've ever been angrier about a footnote. Context: this is in a SCOTUS decision holding that a state prisoner on death row can be executed because of his appellate counsel's negligence, because district courts CANNOT 'forgive' the forfeiture due to that negligence," he said. "I mean holy fuck. 'Oops, sorry your lawyers suck, but it would cost too much to make sure you're actually guilty before we electrocute you'??"

Slate correspondent Mark Joseph Stern was equally as outraged.

"The Supreme Court's second and final opinion of the day is an absolutely atrocious 6–3 ruling in Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez, a habeas case. I will say more but this decision effectively ensures that innocent people will remain imprisoned," he tweeted. "The Supreme Court has previously said that habeas petitioners can bring ineffective assistance of counsel claims for the first time in federal court. But today, it says they *can't develop evidence to support these claims.* In doing so, it turns that 'right' into an illusion."

Stern added that "everything about Thomas' opinion is repulsive."

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