Ayestas v. Davis,
584 U.S. ___ (2018)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Ayestas was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in a Texas state court. He secured new counsel; his conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal. A third legal team sought, unsuccessfully, state habeas relief, claiming ineffective assistance of trial counsel but not counsel’s failure to investigate petitioner’s mental health and substance abuse. His fourth legal team raised that failure in a federal habeas petition. The court found the claim procedurally defaulted because it had never been raised in state court. The case was remanded for reconsideration in light of Martinez, in which the Supreme Court held that a prisoner seeking federal habeas relief could overcome the procedural default of a trial-level ineffective-assistance claim by showing that the claim is substantial and that state habeas counsel was ineffective in failing to raise it, and Trevino's extension of that holding to Texas prisoners. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the denial of his motion for funding to develop his claim (18 U.S.C. 3599(f)). A unanimous Supreme Court vacated, first holding that the denial was a judicial decision, requiring the application of a legal standard and subject to appellate review, rather than an administrative decision. The Fifth Circuit did not apply the correct legal standard in requiring that applicants show a “substantial need” for the services. Section 3599 authorizes funding for the “reasonably necessary” services of experts, investigators, and the like; it requires the court to determine, in its discretion, whether a reasonable attorney would regard the services as sufficiently important. The court also required “a viable constitutional claim that is not procedurally barred,” which is too restrictive after Trevino. An argument that funding is never “reasonably necessary” where a habeas petitioner seeks to present a procedurally defaulted ineffective-assistance claim that depends on facts outside the state-court record may be considered on remand.

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

Ayestas, aka Zelaya Corea v. Davis, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division

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

No. 16–6795. Argued October 30, 2017—Decided March 21, 2018

Petitioner Ayestas was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in a Texas state court. He secured new counsel, but his conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal. A third legal team sought, unsuccessfully, state habeas relief, claiming trial-level ineffective assistance of counsel but not counsel’s failure to investigate petitioner’s mental health and alcohol and drug abuse during the trial’s penalty phase. His fourth set of attorneys did raise that failure in a federal habeas petition, but because the claim had never been raised in state court, the District Court held, it was barred by procedural default. That decision was vacated and remanded for reconsideration in light of Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U. S. 1 —where this Court held that an Arizona prisoner seeking federal habeas relief could overcome the procedural default of a trial-level ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim by showing that the claim is substantial and that state habeas counsel was also ineffective in failing to raise the claim in a state habeas proceeding—and Trevino v. Thaler, 569 U. S. 413 —which extended that holding to Texas prisoners. Petitioner filed an ex parte motion asking the District Court for funding to develop his claim that both his trial and state habeas counsel were ineffective, relying on 18 U. S. C. §3599(f), which provides, in relevant part, that a district court “may authorize” funding for “investigative, expert, or other services . . . reasonably necessary for the representation of the defendant.” The court found his claim precluded by procedural default and thus denied his funding request. The Fifth Circuit also rejected the funding claim under its precedent: that a §3599(f) funding applicant must show that he has a “substantial need” for investigative or other services, and that funding may be denied when an applicant fails to present “a viable constitutional claim that is not procedurally barred.” 817 F. 3d 888, 895–896.

Held:

1. The District Court’s denial of petitioner’s funding request was a judicial decision subject to appellate review under the standard jurisdictional provisions. Pp. 7–14.

(a) Title 28 U. S. C. §§1291, 2253, and 1254 confer jurisdiction to review decisions made by a district court in a judicial capacity. “Administrative” decisions—about, e.g., facilities, personnel, equipment, supplies, and rules of procedure—are “not subject to [this Court’s] review,” Hohn v. United States, 524 U. S. 236 , but the District Court’s ruling here does not remotely resemble such decisions. Petitioner’s request was made by motion in his federal habeas proceeding, which is indisputably a judicial proceeding. And resolution of the funding question requires the application of a legal standard—whether the funding is “reasonably necessary” for effective representation—that demands an evaluation of petitioner’s prospects of obtaining habeas relief. Pp. 8–10.

(b) Respondent’s arguments in support of her claim that §3599’s funding requests are nonadversarial and administrative are unpersuasive. First, that the requests can be decided ex parte does not make the proceeding nonadversarial. The habeas proceeding here was clearly adversarial. And petitioner and respondent plainly have adverse interests on the funding question and have therefore squared off as adversaries. The mere fact that a §3599 funding request may sometimes be made ex parte is thus hardly dispositive. Second, nothing in §3599 even hints that the funding decisions may be revised by the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. Lower court cases that appear to have accepted Administrative Office review of certain Criminal Justice Act (CJA) payments, even if a proper interpretation of the CJA, are inapposite. Finally, the fact that §3599(g)(2) requires funding in excess of the generally applicable statutory cap to be approved by the circuit’s chief judge or another designated circuit judge, instead of by a panel of three, does not make the proceeding administrative. If Congress wishes to make certain rulings reviewable by a single circuit judge, the Constitution does not stand in the way. Pp. 10–14.

2. The Fifth Circuit did not apply the correct legal standard in affirming the denial of petitioner’s funding request. Section 3599 authorizes funding for the “reasonably necessary” services of experts, investigators, and the like. But the Fifth Circuit’s requirement that applicants show a “substantial need” for the services is arguably a more demanding standard. Section 3599 appears to use the term “necessary” to mean something less than essential. Because it makes little sense to refer to something as being “reasonably essential,” the Court concludes that the statutory phrase calls for the district court to determine, in its discretion, whether a reasonable attorney would regard the services as sufficiently important, guided by considerations detailed in the opinion. The term “substantial” in the Fifth Circuit’s test, however, suggests a heavier burden. And that court exacerbated the difference by also requiring a funding applicant to present “a viable constitutional claim that is not procedurally barred.” That rule that is too restrictive after Trevino, see 569 U. S. at 429, because, in cases where funding stands a credible chance of enabling a habeas petitioner to overcome the procedural default obstacle, it may be error for a district court to refuse funding. That being said, district courts were given broad discretion in assessing funding requests when Congress changed the phrase “shall authorize” in §3599’s predecessor statute, see 21 U. S. C. §848(q)(9), to “may authorize” in §3599(f). A funding applicant must not be expected to prove that he will be able to win relief if given the services, but the “reasonably necessary” test does require an assessment of the likely utility of the services requested.

Respondent’s alternative ground for affirmance—that funding is never “reasonably necessary” where a habeas petitioner seeks to present a procedurally defaulted ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim that depends on facts outside the state-court record—remains open for the Fifth Circuit to consider on remand. Pp. 14–19.

817 F. 3d 888, vacated and remanded.

Alito, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Sotomayor, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined.

Primary Holding

In requiring a petitioner to show a "substantial need" for funding for services to support a procedurally defaulted habeas claim, the Fifth Circuit applied an incorrect standard.

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