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NACDL - National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
May 31, 2022

Nation’s Defense Bar Condemns Supreme Court Decision Undermining the Right of Habeas Corpus

Washington, DC (May 31, 2022) – Last week, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion undermining the capacity of federal courts to remedy wrongful convictions in state courts. In Shinn v. Ramirez, the Supreme Court upheld two death sentences despite a record of incompetence by state-appointed habeas counsel. The Court held, under Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), that new evidence absent from the state court record – even if due to ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel appointed by the state – could not be used in federal court to challenge potentially wrongful convictions.

In Shinn v. Ramirez, the United States Supreme Court heldthat a federal court "may not conduct an evidentiary hearing or otherwise consider evidence beyond the state-court record based on ineffective assistance of state post-conviction counsel." This 6-3 decision, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, continues the decades long attack on the right of the wrongfully convicted to seek relief from federal courts. Specifically, the decision allows a state to provide an incompetent lawyer who fails to raise issues at the state level and later, after conviction, argue that the accused should not be able to raise those issues in federal court in a writ of habeas corpus because the incompetent lawyer provided by the state dropped the ball. In this case, the Supreme Court overturned decisions by lower courts allowing two Arizona men, facing death sentences, to present evidence of innocence and evidence of an extreme intellectual disability simply because their incompetent lawyers failed to investigate and present this evidence as the Constitution requires. Because of this decision, a state can, in effect, deprive an accused of the right to effective representation by appointing an incompetent lawyer and later defend a conviction resulting from that lawyer’s incompetence.

"The absurdity of this notion is second only to its inhumanity. In the name of finality, the Supreme Court not only tolerates but embraces two constitutionally flawed death decisions for two human beings," said NACDL President Martín Sabelli. "The Constitution, however, does not give states the rights to condemn and kill our brothers and sisters based on substandard work by the lawyers it appoints to defend them. The Court has yet again closed the door to those who may have been wrongfully condemned and it has done so despite the extreme incompetence reflected in the evidence which the state-appointed lawyers failed to investigate but which was later presented through a writ of habeas corpus. None of us would tolerate this absurdity in the most mundane matters, let alone where life and liberty are at stake. We therefore call on Congress to bring back to life the right of habeas corpus – the Great Writ – which has been eroded, attacked, and undermined over the last thirty years. The time has come to reverse the mistaken and inhumane approach of Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)."

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NACDL - National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

Founded in 1958, NACDL is the largest organization for criminal defense lawyers fighting to preserve fairness within America's criminal justice system. The organization has more than 10,000 direct members including criminal defense attorneys in private practice, public defenders in state or federal court, U.S. military defense counsel, law professors and judges.