Davila v. Davis,
582 U.S. ___ (2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

In petitioner’s state capital murder trial, the court overruled counsel’s objection to a proposed jury and submitted the instruction to the jury, which convicted petitioner. Appellate counsel did not challenge the jury instruction; petitioner’s conviction was affirmed. Petitioner’s state habeas counsel did not raise the instructional issue or challenge appellate counsel’s failure to raise it. The state habeas court denied relief. Petitioner then sought federal habeas relief. The Fifth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed denial of relief. The ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel does not provide cause to excuse the procedural default of ineffective-assistance-of-appellate-counsel claims. Attorney error during state postconviction proceedings, for which the Constitution does not guarantee the right to counsel, cannot supply cause to excuse a procedural default that occurs in those proceedings except where state law requires a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel to be raised in an “initial-review collateral proceeding,” rather than on direct appeal or where the state’s “procedural framework, by reason of its design and operation, makes it unlikely in a typical case that a defendant will have a meaningful opportunity to raise” the claim on direct appeal. Extending the exception is not required to ensure that meritorious claims of trial error receive review by at least one state or federal court. A claim of trial error, preserved by trial counsel but not raised by counsel on appeal, will have been addressed by the trial court.

Prior History
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Clarence Thomas)  | 
  • Dissent (Stephen G. Breyer)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

DAVILA v. DAVIS, DIRECTOR, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE, CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS DIVISION

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

No. 16–6219. Argued April 24, 2017—Decided June 26, 2017

In petitioner’s state capital murder trial, the trial court overruled counsel’s objection to a proposed jury instruction and submitted the instruction to the jury, which convicted petitioner. Appellate counsel did not challenge the jury instruction, and petitioner’s conviction and sentence were affirmed. Petitioner’s state habeas counsel did not raise the instructional issue or challenge appellate counsel’s failure to raise it on appeal, and the state habeas court denied relief. Petitioner then sought federal habeas relief. Invoking Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U. S. 1 , and Trevino v. Thaler, 569 U. S. 413 , petitioner argued that his state habeas counsel’s ineffective assistance in failing to raise an ineffective-assistance-of-appellate-counsel claim provided cause to excuse the procedural default of that claim. The District Court denied relief, concluding that Martinez and Trevino apply exclusively to ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims. The Fifth Circuit denied a certificate of appealability.

Held: The ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel does not provide cause to excuse the procedural default of ineffective-assistance-of-appellate-counsel claims. Pp. 4–16.

(a) In Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U. S. 722 , this Court held that attorney error committed in the course of state postconviction proceedings—for which the Constitution does not guarantee the right to counsel—cannot supply cause to excuse a procedural default that occurs in those proceedings. Id., at 755. In Martinez, the Court announced an “equitable . . . qualification” of Coleman’s rule that applies where state law requires a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel to be raised in an “initial-review collateral proceeding,” rather than on direct appeal. 566 U. S., at 16, 17. In those situations, “a procedural default will not bar a federal habeas court from hearing a substantial claim of ineffective assistance at trial if” the default results from the ineffective assistance of the prisoner’s counsel in the collateral proceeding. Id., at 17. The Court clarified in Trevino that Martinez’s exception also applies where the State’s “procedural framework, by reason of its design and operation, makes it unlikely in a typical case that a defendant will have a meaningful opportunity to raise” the claim on direct appeal. 569 U. S., at ___. Pp. 4–7.

(b) This Court declines to extend the Martinez exception to allow a federal court to hear a substantial, but procedurally defaulted, claim of appellate ineffectiveness when a prisoner’s state postconviction counsel provides ineffective assistance by failing to raise it. Pp. 7–16.

(1) Martinez itself does not support extending this exception to new categories of procedurally defaulted claims. The Martinez Court did not purport to displace Coleman as the general rule governing procedural default. Rather, it “qualifie[d] Coleman by recognizing a narrow exception,” 566 U. S., at 9, and made clear that “[t]he rule of Coleman governs in all but th[ose] limited circumstances,” id., at 16. Applying Martinez’s highly circumscribed, equitable exception to new categories of procedurally defaulted claims would do precisely what this Court disclaimed in that case. P. 7.

(2) Martinez’s underlying rationale does not support extending its exception to appellate-ineffectiveness claims. Petitioner argues that his situation is analogous to Martinez, where the Court expressed concern that trial-ineffectiveness claims might completely evade review. The Court in Martinez made clear, however, that it exercised its equitable discretion in view of the unique importance of protecting a defendant’s trial rights, particularly the right to effective assistance of trial counsel. Declining to expand Martinez to the appellate-ineffectiveness context does no more than respect that judgment. Nor is petitioner’s rule required to ensure that meritorious claims of trial error receive review by at least one state or federal court—Martinez’s chief concern. See 566 U. S., at 10, 12. A claim of trial error, preserved by trial counsel but not raised by counsel on appeal, will have been addressed by the trial court. If an unpreserved trial error was so obvious that appellate counsel was constitutionally required to raise it on appeal, then trial counsel likely provided ineffective assistance by failing to raise it at trial. In that circumstance, the prisoner likely could invoke Martinez or Coleman to obtain review of trial counsel’s failure to object. Similarly, if the underlying, defaulted claim of trial error was ineffective assistance of trial counsel premised on something other than the failure to object, then Martinez and Coleman again already provide a vehicle for obtaining review of that error in most circumstances. Pp. 7–11.

(3) The equitable concerns addressed in Martinez do not apply to appellate-ineffectiveness claims. In Martinez and Trevino, the States deliberately chose to make postconviction process the only means for raising trial-ineffectiveness claims. The Court determined that it would be inequitable to refuse to hear a defaulted claim when the State had channeled that claim to a forum where the prisoner might lack the assistance of counsel in raising it. The States have not made a similar choice with respect to appellate-ineffectiveness claims—nor could they, since such claims generally cannot be presented until after the termination of direct appeal. The fact that appellate-ineffectiveness claims are considered in proceedings in which counsel is not constitutionally guaranteed is a function of the nature of the claim, not of the States’ deliberate choices. Pp. 11–12.

(4) The Martinez decision was also grounded in part on the belief that its narrow exception was unlikely to impose significant systemic costs. See 566 U. S., at 15–16. But adopting petitioner’s proposed extension could flood the federal courts with defaulted appellate-ineffectiveness claims, and potentially serve as a gateway to federal review of a host of defaulted claims of trial error. It would also aggravate the harm to federalism that federal habeas review of state convictions necessarily causes. Not only would these burdens on the federal courts and federal system be severe, but the systemic benefit would be small, as claims heard in federal court solely by virtue of petitioner’s proposed rule would likely be largely meritless. Pp. 12–16.

650 Fed. Appx. 860, affirmed.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Alito, and Gorsuch, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined.

Primary Holding

Ineffective assistance of counsel after a conviction is not a basis to excuse a procedural default on a claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel.

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