Weaver v. Mass. and Davila v. Davis: Supreme Court Limits Some Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims
The U.S. Supreme Court in June limited the ability of petitioners to pursue some ineffective assistance of counsel claims.
In Weaver v. Massachusetts, decided June 22, the Court held that even though trial counsel’s failure to object to closure of the courtroom during voir dire was “structural error,” the petitioner nevertheless must prove prejudice. In the context of “structural error,” this means either a reasonable probability of a different outcome, or that the particular violation was so serious as to render the trial fundamentally unfair.
In Davila v. Davis, decided June 26, the Court held that ineffective assistance of state postconviction counsel will not provide cause to excuse the procedural default of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claims. The Court refused to extend the Martinez v. Ryan exception to procedural default to claims of ineffective appellate counsel.
Trial counsel in Weaver failed to object to a judge’s closure of the courtroom during voir dire due to inadequate seating capacity. Petitioner’s mother and minister were unable to attend voir dire as a result.
Petitioner later sought postconviction relief for counsel’s failure to object.
In the direct appeal context, courtroom closure is treated as “structural error,” i.e., an error entitling a defendant to automatic reversal without any inquiry into prejudice.
But in a 7-2 opinion, the Court held that in the context of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, a petitioner must show prejudice.
The reason for the difference stems from the different considerations between a direct appeal and a claim raised on collateral review, the Court said. When an error is objected to at trial, the trial judge has an opportunity to cure it. And when an error is reversed on direct appeal, not much time will have elapsed between the original trial and a newly-ordered trial. But a claim not raised until collateral review imposes greater “costs and uncertainties” on the criminal justice system, as well as undermines finality.
A second reason for requiring a showing of prejudice is the nature of the error here, the Court said.
The “precise reason” why a particular error is deemed structural varies, Court said. Some errors are structural because they result in “fundamental unfairness,” such as denying counsel to an indigent defendant or failing to give a reasonable doubt instruction. Other errors are structural because the effect of the error is simply too hard to measure.
The question “is whether a public trial violation counts as structural error because it always leads to fundamental unfairness or for some other reason.”
The Court noted that since it has previously permitted closure of courtrooms in some circumstances, it cannot be said that courtroom closure always renders a trial fundamentally unfair.
Thus, a petitioner raising an ineffective assistance of counsel claim for failing to object to courtroom closure must show either a reasonable probability of a different outcome, or that the public-trial violation was “so serious as to render his or her trial fundamentally unfair.”
The Court held the particular closure here did not meet this test. The closure affected only the voir dire portion of trial. Nothing in the record showed any unfairness during voir dire, other than the closure itself. “[T]here is no suggestion that any juror lied during voir dire” and “no suggestion of misbehavior by the prosecutor, judge or any other party” during the closure, the Court concluded.
Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, concurred, but questioned whether the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial extends to jury selection. They would be “open to reconsidering” that in a future case.
They also disagreed that a petitioner can show prejudice by establishing that counsel’s error rendered the trial “fundamentally unfair.”
Justice Alito, joined by Gorsuch, also concurred, but believed that prejudice requires showing either an error tantamount to a denial of counsel, or that counsel’s error rendered the trial “unreliable,” i.e., a reasonable likelihood that the error affected the verdict.
Justices Breyer and Kagan dissented. They would hold that all “structural errors” are intrinsically harmful and warrant automatic reversal.
Federal habeas courts generally will not consider claims which a state court did not consider based on adequate and independent state procedural grounds. Petitioners may be able to overcome this procedural default, however, if they can show “cause” to excuse it, but an attorney error generally does not qualify as “cause.”
Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler announced a narrow exception to this general rule. Those cases held that ineffective assistance by a petitioner’s state postconviction counsel can be cause to overcome the default of a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, where the State requires a petitioner to bring that claim in state postconviction proceedings rather than direct appeal.
The question in Davila was whether this exception should be extended to defaulted claims of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. The Court ruled 5-4 that it should not.
“Martinez was principally concerned about trial errors – in particular, claims ineffective assistance of trial counsel,” the Court said. “The criminal trial enjoys pride of place in our criminal justice system in a way that an appeal from a trial does not.”
The “limited nature” of the holding in Martinez was based on the unique importance of trials and trial counsel. “In declining to expand the Martinez exception to the distinct context of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, we do no more than respect that judgment,” the Court said.
The Martinez holding was also necessary so that claims of trial error would receive at least some review. But the Court said that errors concerning ineffective appellate counsel claims would likely be able to receive some review if reframed.
“If 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 object to it in the first instance,” the Court said. “In that circumstance, the prisoner likely could invoke Martinez … to obtain review of trial counsel’s failure to object.”
The Court also declined to extend Martinez to avoid a “flood” of new federal habeas claims, and to not “aggravate the harm to federalism that federal habeas review necessarily causes.”
Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan dissented.