Trevino v. Thaler,
569 U.S. ___ (2013)

Annotate this Case
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Stephen G. Breyer)  | 
  • Dissent (John G. Roberts, Jr.)  | 
  • Dissent (Antonin Scalia)



No. 11–10189



on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

[May 28, 2013]

     Chief Justice Roberts, with whom Justice Alito joins, dissenting.

     In our federal system, the “state courts are the principal forum for asserting constitutional challenges to state convictions.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U. S. __, __ (2011) (slip op., at 13). “Federal courts sitting in habeas,” we have said, “are not an alternative forum for trying . . . issues which a prisoner made insufficient effort to pursue in state proceedings.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U. S. 420, 437 (2000) . This basic principle reflects the fact that federal habeas review “ ‘intrudes on state sovereignty to a degree matched by few exercises of federal judicial authority.’ ” Richter, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 13) (quoting Harris v. Reed, 489 U. S. 255, 282 (1989) (Kennedy, J., dissenting)).

     In order to prevent circumvention of the state courts and the unjustified intrusion on state sovereignty that results, we have held that “a state prisoner [who] fails to exhaust state remedies . . . [or] has failed to meet the State’s procedural requirements for presenting his federal claims” will not be entitled to federal habeas relief unless he can show “cause” to excuse his default. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U. S. 722, 732, 750 (1991) . There is an exception to that rule where “failure to consider the claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice,” ibid.; that exception is not at issue here.

     Cause comes in different forms, but the one relevant here is attorney error. We recognized in Coleman that “[w]here a [habeas] petitioner defaults a claim as a result of the denial of the right to effective assistance of counsel, the State, which is responsible for the denial as a constitutional matter, must bear the cost of any resulting default.” Id., at 754. But we simultaneously recognized that “[a] different allocation of costs is appropriate in those circumstances where the State has no responsibility to ensure that the petitioner was represented by competent counsel.” Ibid. In that situation, we held, “it is the petitioner who must bear the burden of a failure to follow state proce-dural rules.” Ibid. Because the error in Coleman occurred during state postconviction proceedings, a point at which the habeas petitioner had no constitutional right to counsel, the petitioner had to bear the cost of his default. Id., at 757.

     Last Term, in Martinez v. Ryan, we announced a “narrow exception” to Coleman’s “unqualified statement . . . that an attorney’s ignorance or inadvertence in a postconviction proceeding does not qualify as cause to excuse a procedural default.” 566 U. S. 1 , ___ (2012) (slip op., at 6). In Martinez, Arizona law did not allow defendants to raise ineffective assistance of counsel claims on direct appeal; they could only raise such claims in state collateral proceedings. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 2). We held that while Arizona was free to structure its state court procedures in this way, its “decision is not without consequences for the State’s ability to assert a procedural default in later proceedings.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 10). “By deliberately choosing to move trial-ineffectiveness claims outside of the direct-appeal process, where counsel is constitutionally guaranteed, the State significantly diminishes prisoners’ ability to file such claims.” Ibid. Thus, “within the context of this state procedural framework,” attorney error would qualify as cause to excuse procedural default if it occurred in the first proceeding at which the prisoner was “allow[ed]” to raise his trial ineffectiveness claim. Id., at ___, ___ (slip op., at 10, 13).

     We were unusually explicit about the narrowness of our decision: “The holding in this case does not concern attorney errors in other kinds of proceedings,” and “does not extend to attorney errors in any proceeding beyond the first occasion the State allows a prisoner to raise a claim of ineffective assistance at trial.” Id., at ___–___ (slip op., at 13–14). “Our holding here addresses only the constitutional claims presented in this case, where the State barred the defendant from raising the claims on direct appeal.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 14). In “all but the limited circumstances recognized here,” we said, “[t]he rule of Coleman governs.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 13).

     This aggressively limiting language was not simply a customary nod to the truism that “we decide only the case before us.” Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U. S. 383, 396 (1981) . It was instead an important part of our explanation for why “[t]his limited qualification to Coleman does not implicate the usual concerns with upsetting reliance interests protected by stare decisis principles.” Martinez, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 12). The fact that the exception was clearly delineated ensured that the Coleman rule would remain administrable. And because States could readily anticipate how such a sharply defined exception would apply to various procedural frameworks, the exception could be reconciled with our concerns for comity and equitable balancing that led to Coleman’s baseline rule in the first place. See Coleman, supra, at 750–751. The States had a clear choice, which they could make with full knowledge of the consequences: If a State “deliberately cho[se] to move trial-ineffectiveness claims outside of the direct-appeal process” through a “decision to bar defendants from raising” them there, then—and only then—would “counsel’s ineffectiveness in an initial-review collateral proceeding qualif[y] as cause for a procedural default.” Martinez, 566 U. S., at ___, ___ (slip op., at 10, 14).

     Today, with hardly a mention of these concerns, the majority throws over the crisp limit we made so explicit just last Term. We announced in Martinez that the exception applies “where the State barred the defendant from raising the claims on direct appeal.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 14). But today, the Court takes all the starch out of its rule with an assortment of adjectives, adverbs, and modifying clauses: Martinez’s “narrow exception” now applies whenever the “state procedural framework, by reason of its design and operation, makes it highly unlikely in a typical case that a defendant will have a meaningful opportunity” to raise his claim on direct appeal. Ante, at 14.

     The questions raised by this equitable equation are as endless as will be the state-by-state litigation it takes to work them out. We are not told, for example, how meaningful is meaningful enough, how meaningful-ness is to be measured, how unlikely highly unlikely is, how often a procedural framework’s “operation” must be reassessed, or what case qualifies as the “typical” case. Take just this last example: The case before us involved a jury trial (hardly typical), a capital conviction (even less typical), and—as the majority emphasizes—a particular species of ineffectiveness claim that depends on time-consuming investigation of personal background and other mitigating circumstances. Ante, at 10. Yet the majority holds it up, apparently, as a case that is typical in the relevant sense, saying that “[t]he present capital case illustrates” the “systematic” working of Texas’s procedural framework. Ibid.

     Given that the standard is so opaque and malleable, the majority cannot describe the exception applied here as narrow, and does not do so. Gone are the repeated words of limitation that characterized the Martinez opinion. Gone too is the clear choice that Martinez gave the States about how to structure their criminal justice systems. Now, the majority offers them a gamble: If a State allows defendants to bring ineffectiveness claims both on direct appeal and in postconviction proceedings, then a prisoner might have to comply with state procedural requirements in order to preserve the availability of federal habeas review, if a federal judge decides that the state system gave the defendant (or enough other “typical” defendants) a sufficiently meaningful opportunity to press his claim.

     This invitation to litigation will, in precisely the manner that Coleman foreclosed, “ ‘frustrate both the States’ sovereign power to punish offenders and their good-faith attempts to honor constitutional rights.’ ” Coleman, 501 U. S., at 748 (quoting Engle v. Isaac, 456 U. S. 107, 128 (1982) ). In what I suspect (though cannot know) will be a broad swath of cases, the Court’s approach will excuse procedural defaults that, under Coleman, should preclude federal review. But even in cases where federal courts ultimately decide that the habeas petitioner cannot establish cause under the new standard, the years of procedural wrangling it takes to reach that decision will themselves undermine the finality of sentences necessary to effective criminal justice. Because that approach is inconsistent with Coleman, Martinez itself, and the principles of equitable discretion and comity at the heart of both, I respectfully dissent.

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