In a recent 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court decided Trevina v. Thaler to extend a ruling it made last year which allowed prisoners to challenge their state convictions in federal court based on the claim that their attorneys were ineffective.
Last year, the Court considered a case out of Arizona which challenged the state’s law saying that claims of ineffective assistance of counsel had to be raised in a separate post-conviction motion and not in a direct appeal of the original conviction. The problem with this approach is that there is no right to an attorney in the post-conviction motion phase, though there is in the direct appeal phase. The Supreme Court ruled that federal courts are allowed to hear challenged to Arizona convictions based on ineffective assistance if the defendant had no lawyer in the separate post-conviction challenge.
The Supreme Court said in the Arizona case that by insisting that ineffective assistance of counsel be claimed outside the appeals process where counsel is constitutionally guaranteed, Arizona significantly diminished defendants’ ability to file such a claim.
The new case concerned the Texas criminal justice system which also encourages, though does not require, that such ineffective assistance of counsel claims be raised in separate proceedings and not as a part of a direct appeal. The Supreme Court decided the distinction between Texas and Arizona was unimportant and that the tradition was enough to deprive some defendants of the chance to raise ineffective assistance claims. The Court said that as a matter of practice, the Texas system does not offer most defendants a meaningful chance to present a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel on direct appeal.
Given the recent decision, it seems clear the Court is willing to go great lengths to ensure that defendants have the opportunity to raise ineffective assistance of counsel claims as part of the direct appeals process where they are constitutionally ensured legal representation.
To read the full opinion, click here.
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