Supreme Court rules ‘ineffective lawyer’ doesn’t matter – Workers World

The list of incarcerated people who were wrongfully sentenced because their lawyers were poorly paid, overburdened and ill-prepared for trial is very long. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution is supposed to guarantee every defendant the right to competent counsel; but for the poor and working people, especially people of color, well-funded prosecutors have an inherent advantage over court-appointed public defenders.

The ability to challenge convictions because of “ineffective counsel” has always been difficult for poor incarcerated people to prove, but a May 23 US Supreme Court decision now makes it an almost insurmountable task.

In Shinn, Director, Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry v. Ramirez (2022), SCOTUS ruled that the two Arizona death row inmates – David Ramirez and Barry Jones – could not prove the ineffectiveness of their attorneys’ advice in their federal habeas corpus petitions. Both defendants argued that the process of obtaining their convictions or sentences violated the Sixth Amendment.

Jones argued that his attorneys were so ineffective that they failed to uncover evidence that he was innocent of the crimes. Jones was convicted at trial and sentenced to death. The SCOTUS ruling means Arizona can now proceed with his death sentence, even if new evidence proves he is not guilty.

Ramirez argued that his attorneys failed to uncover mitigating evidence that would have persuaded the jury to sentence him to years in prison, rather than the death penalty he currently faces.

Referring to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, Judge Clarence Thomas wrote: ineffective post-conviction assistance from state counsel. (bit.ly/3t5Z7KF)

Thomas called the federal judicial intervention overturning a state prisoner’s conviction and condemning an “intrusion on state sovereignty.” . . [that] trumps the sovereign power of the state to enforce societal norms through criminal law. The Supreme Court’s decision overturned the judgments of four federal judges from the federal district court and the federal appeals court. (bit.ly/3t3DbA1)

Joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, Justice Sonia Sotomayor opposed the ruling with a 20-page dissent, which said in part, “The ruling is perverse. It’s illogical. . . . It is hard to imagine a “more extreme dysfunction”. . . The court’s decision will leave many people convicted in violation of the Sixth Amendment facing incarceration or even execution, with no real chance of asserting their right to counsel. (bit.ly/3t5Z7KF)

SCOTUS sentences innocent people to death

Robert Loeb, who represented Ramirez and Jones on the Supreme Court, released a statement saying the decision “leaves the fundamental constitutional right of trial counsel without an effective mechanism for enforcement in these circumstances. . . . This means that a federal court may have proof that someone, like Barry Jones, did not commit the crime warranting the death sentence, but the court is then powerless to offer any relief. bit.ly/3GC9yLx

Indigent defense – the defense of people who do not have the resources to hire their own lawyer – is woefully underfunded. Public defenders handle hundreds of cases a year, far more than they have the time or resources to handle them effectively. And states are severely restricting the procedures and resources that would allow public defenders to develop their cases further.

By making it nearly impossible to challenge the fact that many innocent people are convicted due to improper defense by court-appointed attorneys, the United States Supreme Court has sentenced innocent people to death or incarceration.

This latest court ruling underscores once again how unfair the American legal system is, especially for the poor and oppressed. This is one more reason why the whole capitalist system must be overthrown. The SCOTUS decision lays bare the hypocrisy of this court which invokes the “concern for life” as a ground for quashing Roe v. Wade but would see innocent people put to death.

About the author