Prosecutors for the state and two Arizona prisoners made oral arguments today in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, debating whether the state’s limited due process forced people to argue exonerating evidence in a federal court, which possibly violated a federal anti-terrorism law.
The case, Shinn v. Ramirez, discusses two separate cases where two men (both of whom were sentenced to death) effectively argued in federal courts that both their lawyers failed to bring up evidence during an appeal that would exonerate them from a death sentence.
Barry Jones was convicted of sexual assault, child abuse, and felony murder of his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter. The state’s case relied on a limited timeline when an eyewitness saw Jones hit the girl. But there were other medical experts who were never interviewed who contested the facts and argued that other people — including the girl’s mother — could also have struck the girl.
The state also challenged the federal court’s decision to allow new evidence that could overturn a decision related to David Ramirez, who was convicted in 1990 of raping and murdering a teenager. According to court records, Ramirez’s lawyer did not provide evidence that Ramirez was severely mentally disabled, which would have forbid him from the death penalty, per federal law.
The case is a gift to legal wonks and relies on a heavy understanding of the (very dense) 1996 Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which limited when people sentenced to death could argue new evidence in a federal court.
The argument against the state hinges on a former Supreme Court ruling, Martinez v. Ryan, which allowed federal judges to entertain an argument that people had poor representation during post-conviction review, but stopped short of saying there could be an evidentiary hearing.
The court’s decision — which will come sometime early next year — would be a landmark decision no matter which way the justices decide. A decision in favor of the state would be especially damning for defendants in Arizona, which only gives people a single opportunity to argue whether they had poor representation during their trial in a post-conviction review. It would also push forward the execution of Jones, whom judges in the ninth circuit said received such bad counsel during his post-conviction review, that they ordered Arizona to retry or release him.
A decision in favor of Ramirez would give Arizonans the ability to argue, prove, and then have their evidence heard more than once.
But Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who is running for U.S. Senate next year, and his office argued that the federal courts should not have been allowed to make that determination, based on a nearly three-decades-old anti-terrorism law that limits federal courts ability to listen to new evidence outside of a state court.
During opening statements, the state’s lawyer said that the federal court violated the anti-terrorism law established through Congress by listening to evidence and then determining — based on that evidence — the outcome of the state’s former trials.
“Martinez’s judge-made rule cannot rewrite Congress’s statutory mandates,” said Beau Roysden, the solicitor general representing Arizona in the case.
Robert Loeb, the respondents’ lawyer in the case, responded in a statement that, “Arizona’s position would represent a dramatic departure from existing federal law, would undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system, and would result in the imprisonment and execution of innocent individuals.”
Brnovich’s office declined to comment, instead publishing a press release further doubling down that Jones and Ramirez both were guilty and that the case was an opportunity to cause delays in the system. They did not address questions or issues brought up by the justices on the state’s case.
Before oral arguments today, there has been consistent worry from federal defense attorneys that the conservative majority of justices could rule in favor of Arizona.
That worry was compounded today by questions from Justice Samuel Alito, who asked if a ruling against the state would require the court to mandate states to appoint post-conviction review attorneys — something Arizona provides, and Alito would historically not rule in favor of. And Justice Neil Gorsuch asked if deciding in favor of Ramirez might cause judicial backlogs.
The worry of a backlog, though, is overblown. In the nine years since Martinez was decided, only a few dozen cases from all states have been argued. Only a few have been successful: “The number of hearings we’re talking about over a nine-year period over several states… is not a substantial burden,” Loeb said.
But questions from the other conservative justices seemed to favor Ramirez, which shocked many defenders and legal experts.
Justice Clarence Thomas called the state’s claim “rather odd,” and asked why would they allow federal courts to decide ineffective counsel, “but not allow the prisoner to make his underlying claim or develop his evidence … for his underlying claim.”
Questions from Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts also seemed to lean away from deciding in favor of the state, stating that a ruling for Arizona would essentially gut the Martinez decision — something that Roberts voted in favor of.
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Valena Beety, a law professor at Arizona State University and a post-conviction review expert. “They kept coming back to the idea that we have this case, but what is the point of the relief provided under Martinez if it’s only procedural?”
Another roadblock the state faced was whether or not the Supreme Court took on the case prematurely, as Justice Elena Kagan pointed out.
The foundation of the state’s case is whether or not the federal court violated the anti-terrorism law by making a decision based on new evidence presented by the defendants. But the state only made that claim after the circuit court granted relief. The proper procedure, Kagan said, would have been to argue that procedure in the ninth circuit before the Supreme Court took on the case.
“I greatly appreciated that (the justices) were really challenging the government on this,” said Beety. “It really was an empty claim.”
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