By Alexandr Satanovsky
It took the Supreme Court just seven months since handing down Martinez v. Ryan to grant cert. in Trevino v. Thaler, a case that may expand the Martinez rule beyond its most limited interpretation.
To appreciate Trevino's possible significance, let's step back and consider the potential range of Martinez's doctrinal impact. At its most narrow and limited, Martinez applies only when two conditions are met: (1) the prisoner is raising a substantial trial IAC claim, and (2) state law requires such a claim to be initially reviewed in a collateral proceeding, not direct review. At its broadest, Martinez may apply when (1) the prisoner is asserting any substantial claim on collateral review -- IAC, Brady, jury tampering, etc., and (2) such a claim is most naturally reviewed in a collateral proceeding, determined by whether the factual basis of the claim requires development beyond the trial record.
The narrow view has carried the day in the lower courts, and quite understandably: Martinez limited itself to its facts, i.e., an IAC claim brought under a scheme that barred IAC from the direct appeal. But this view is doctrinally incoherent: First, there is no compelling reason to treat IAC claims as unique from other claims, like Brady, that require investigation and extra-record development, which is obviously too burdensome for an incarcerated petitioner. Second, it makes little sense to resurrect legal formalism by approving a distinction between those states (like Arizona), which impose a formal bar to the direct review of certain claims, and others (like Texas), which--although do not formally bar the claims--realistically render them impracticable on direct review.
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Up until October, there was little suggestion that Martinez may mean something more than the narrow interpretation described above. But that all changed when the Supreme Court stayed a bunch of executions to consider cert. petitions re: Martinez's applicability to Texas, and eventually granted the Trevino petition. And this past Monday, Justices Scalia and Sotomayor issued brief statements concerning the Haynes v. Thaler stay issued several weeks ago.
This past month's developments, I think, make for a good prospect that Martinez will be expanded beyond its limited facts. For the following reasons (which, to be sure, are nothing more than my reading of the proverbial tea leaves), I think Trevino will be a stride in the direction of the broad, doctrinally coherent view of Martinez.
1. The Genesis of the Martinez Exception: To get some idea as to what the Court may have been thinking when it issued Martinez, consider the following: First, there was no circuit split for the Court to address when it chose to grant cert. It was a non-capital case and the petition did not gesture toward a gross miscarriage of justice. Indeed, the thrust of the cert. petition was nothing beyond a call for a change in the law on cause-and-prejudice (well, a call for a constitutional right to collateral counsel, which the Court sidestepped), uncannily resembling a merits brief. Second, the ultimate disposition of Martinez was clean and concise: a 7-2 split, one majority opinion and one dissent.
This "genesis" of the Martinez rule suggests to me that it was deliberately planned, possibly even prior to the cert. grant. In other words, Martinez was not a haphazard product of untoward necessity, as may be the case when there is a flagrant circuit split (or other non-merits reason for cert.), and when the disposition involves multiple fractured opinions. And if we grant that Martinez was a delibarate decision to change the law, I find it difficult that Court sought nothing more than to carve out an uber-limited and doctrinally incoherent exception.
2. Revisiting the Rule in Trevino: Returning to Trevino, it's notable how quickly the Court chose to revisit and clarify Martinez. It has been just over seven months, with no circuit split and modest percolation. As with Martinez, the most sensible explanation for the Trevino grant, I think, is that the Court wants to change the law and correct the Fifth Circuit's unduly narrow interpretation. If the Court agreed with the Fifth Circuit's narrow approach, I doubt that it would have granted cert so early. Instead, it would have waited for another circuit (read: the Ninth) to hold that Martinez applies to a state that formally allows IAC claims on direct review, and reverse that decision.
3. Scalia's Dissent to the Haynes Stay: Finally--and this last point only little probative value--it is interesting to look at Scalia's statement, dissenting from last month's stay on the Martinez issue. His gripe with the Stay was not that Haynes's IAC claim may not procedurally benefit from Martinez, but that his IAC claim was, in any event, meritless:
"Even if the Fifth Circuit is incorrect and Martinez does implicate Texas’s system of postconviction review, a stay is unwarranted here because Haynes presents no plausible claim for relief. His complaint is that his trial counsel was ineffective at sentencing. The absolute most to which he would be entitled under Martinez is excuse of his procedural default of this claim, enabling a federal district court to adjudicate the claim on the merits. But that is precisely what the District Court already did on federal habeas review[, finding the claim to be meritless.]"
Neither Haynes, nor any other stay issued in anticipation of Trevino, had a noted dissent arguing, e.g., that the Court's "limited exception" in Martinez, should be allowed to percolate, before staying otherwise lawful judgments in the name of hastily clarifying the law.