criminal justice Jessica Corbett Prisoners' Rights Supreme Court

‘Perverse’ Supreme Court Ruling ‘Effectively Ensures That Innocent People Will Remain Imprisoned’

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that incarcerated people can't present new evidence in federal court to prove a violation of their Sixth Amendment rights.
The Supreme Court vote was split along ideological lines.

By Jessica Corbett / Common Dreams

Legal experts responded with alarm Monday to a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court’s right-wing majority that could lead to the indefinite imprisonment and even execution of people who argue their lawyers didn’t provide adequate representation after convictions in state court.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor—joined by the other two liberals on the court—also blasted the majority opinion in Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez, writing in her scathing dissent that the decision is both “perverse” and “illogical.”

The case involved two men, David Martinez Ramirez and Barry Lee Jones, who are on death row in Arizona. The majority determined that inmates can’t present new evidence in federal court to support a claim that their post-conviction attorney in state court was ineffective, in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which affirms the right to “the assistance of counsel” in criminal all prosecutions.

“A federal habeas court may not conduct an evidentiary hearing or otherwise consider evidence beyond the state court record based on ineffective assistance of state post-conviction counsel,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority, adding that “serial relitigation of final convictions undermines the finality that ‘is essential to both the retributive and deterrent functions of criminal law.'”

Sotomayor, meanwhile, wrote that “the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to the effective assistance of counsel at trial. This court has recognized that right as ‘a bedrock principle’ that constitutes the very ‘foundation for our adversary system’ of criminal justice.”

“Today, however, the court hamstrings the federal courts’ authority to safeguard that right. The court’s decision will leave many people who were convicted in violation of the Sixth Amendment to face incarceration or even execution without any meaningful chance to vindicate their right to counsel,” she warned, also noting that the ruling “all but overrules two recent precedents,” Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler.

In a piece for Slate highlighting how the ruling “will cause profound suffering and perhaps even death as people are denied their constitutional rights,” University of Michigan Law School professor Leah Litman declared that the majority “took a wrecking ball to those decisions.”

As Litman detailed Monday:

Indigent defense—defense for people who lack the resources to hire their own lawyer—is in crisis in this country. Indigent defense is woefully underfunded, and public defenders handle hundreds of cases per year, many more than they have the time or resources to manage effectively. States also heavily restrict the procedures and resources that would allow public defenders to develop their cases in greater depth…

But just as there is an indigent defense crisis in this country, there is also a post-conviction crisis. Post-conviction proceedings are woefully underfunded, and lawyers are limited in the time and resources they have to pursue post-conviction relief. So defendants who are represented by ineffective lawyers at trial may then be represented by an ineffective lawyer during their post-conviction proceedings, when they are supposed to be arguing that their trial lawyer was ineffective. And—surprise—the ineffective post-conviction lawyer may fail to argue that the trial lawyer was ineffective, or may fail to develop any evidence in support of that claim.

In a series of tweets, fellow Michigan law professor Andrew Fleischman pointed out that “without ineffective assistance of counsel claims, there is no procedural vehicle to bring evidence of actual innocence in most states.”

“So, if you have a shitty conflict trial lawyer, and a shitty conflict appeals lawyer, and a mountain of evidence you are innocent, no relief,” Fleischman said, noting Jones’ argument that there is evidence of his innocence.

Other legal experts were similarly critical on social media. University of Texas professor law Lee Kovarsky called the opinion an “abomination” while public defender Eliza Orlins said: “This is radical. This is horrifying. This is extremely scary.”

Slate senior writer Mark Joseph Stern tweeted that the “absolutely atrocious” opinion “effectively ensures that innocent people will remain imprisoned.”

“The unceasing stream of callous, radical, reactionary decisions coming from the Supreme Court is fairly easy to miss because so many of them involve complicated points of law,” Stern added. “But the conservative majority is very much in the midst of a revolution. And it is a brutal one.”

Jessica Corbett

Jessica Corbett is a staff writer for Common Dreams.


  1. “serial relitigation of final convictions undermines the finality that ‘is essential to both the retributive and deterrent functions of criminal law.'”

    Quite the sharp end of a dildo. Amazing how we can call the other side, Liberal, and then this side, Conservative. That C side is criminal, contemptable, and alas, this is it for our educattion system, the good old boys/girls club, and, the absolute misanthropy these bastards exhibit.

    Serial Litigation and Relitigation. Sounds like every rotten Fortune 10,000 company, and the armies of lawyers and accountants and lobbyists these scoudrels deploy when they fight wrongful death, maiming, faculty “products,” etc.

    And, when has this country NOT been a debtors prison?

    Then, all those commenting on this — law professors with tenure, journalist, and, well, one public defender, that’s more ground truthing reality, but still, the Sterns, the Orlins, the Korvasky’s,
    Andrew Fleischman’s, amazing how out of touch they really are, cloistered in tenure track halls.

    The power of a ticket or missed court date or fine:

    The landmark 1983 Supreme Court decision, Bearden v. Georgia, provided protections against the practice of jailing people based on their poverty. Despite these protections, people who cannot afford to pay their court fines and fees are still being incarcerated for nonpayment. This report presents the findings of a year-long investigation into the assessment and collection of fines and fees in five states: Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, and Washington. This publication uses personal accounts of people who struggled to pay their court debt to illustrate the negative effects of debtors’ prisons on individuals, the economy, and the justice system. General and state-specific recommendations are provided to address these practices.


    Bail, anyone?

    On any given day, nearly half a million people languish in jail cells across America, waiting for their criminal cases to move forward and severed from their lives and communities even though they have not been convicted of a crime.1 People in pretrial detention now make up more than two-thirds of America’s jail population.2 They are presumed innocent under the law, yet they will suffer the harms of incarceration unless they have enough money to pay bail and buy their freedom. This two-tier system criminalizes poverty and is a structural linchpin of mass incarceration3 and racial inequality.4 It affects entire communities, devastates families for generations, and guts the presumption of innocence.

    The human toll of this crisis is catastrophic, levied almost exclusively on the poor, and disproportionately on communities of color. People who are jailed pretrial often wait months, and sometimes years, for their cases to resolve. In the meantime, they can lose their jobs, homes, children, and critical community ties.5 Inside jail, people risk sexual violence,6 the deterioration of their mental and physical health,7 and the infliction of lasting trauma.8 They feel enormous pressure to accept an unjust or wrongful conviction just to go home.9 And, as with all other areas of the criminal legal system, people of color bear a far heavier burden due to an enduring legacy of racism and economic disenfranchisement.10

    Moreover, the financial costs that this system generates are staggering. American taxpayers pay $14 billion each year to incarcerate people pretrial.11 Meanwhile, the $2 billion bail industry, with its well-documented predatory and exploitative practices, extracts money from precisely those communities that have the fewest resources.12 Factoring in the impact of pretrial detention on families, communities, and social services, the true economic cost of this crisis has been estimated to approach $140 billion annually.13

    Most Americans recognize that our current pretrial system must change. But while there is growing consensus that we need reform, a shared vision for what this looks like is less clear. Without a focus on the larger systemic problems of which bail is a symptom—structural racism and mass incarceration—reform runs the risk of re-creating the harms and disparities of the current system even after ending cash bail.

    To effect true change, two priorities must inform the transition to a fair justice system: first, eliminating pretrial detention except where absolutely necessary to prevent imminent violence or willful flight; and second, combatting the racial bias that pervades every corner of the American legal system and reinforces inequality. Overall success in this effort should be measured by the level of decarceration and reduction of disparities in how criminal justice is applied, not just the abolition of cash bail.

    This document outlines a roadmap to a more just, equitable, and humane pretrial system.


    The Dirks case is an example of what has been called the “white collar paradox” – that conservative Supreme Court justices, who rarely vote to reverse convictions of poor criminal defendants, have shown a clear sympathy for rich ones. The conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, one study found, voted for defendants in about 7 percent of non-white-collar criminal cases – and 82 percent of white-collar ones.

    The conservative Supreme Court’s soft spot for white-collar defendants is part of a larger phenomenon: its deep and abiding sympathy for the rich. In the 1960s, under the leadership of liberal Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court famously became an advocate for the rights of the poor, in areas ranging from the rights of welfare recipients to the right to appointed counsel in criminal cases. For the past 50 years, however, the Court’s sympathies have been the reverse: on one legal doctrine after another, it has expanded the rights of wealthy individuals and corporations.

    This Court that loves the upper classes has its roots in Richard Nixon’s election in 1968. Nixon vowed during his campaign to end the poor-people-loving Warren Court and replace it with a conservative one. He was able to do this with extraordinary speed: within months of taking office, he appointed a new, conservative chief justice, Warren Burger, and in his first three years in office he was able to name a total of four new justices. That locked in a conservative Court that is still with us today.


    We need hundreds of these: The Innocence Project works to free the innocent, prevent wrongful convictions, and create fair, compassionate, and equitable systems of justice for everyone. Founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the organization is now an independent nonprofit.


    Plea bargains, my ass. How many lawyers in USA are blatant criminals?

    A new study from Carlos Berdejo of Loyola Law School demonstrates for the first time that there are significant racial disparities in the plea deals that white and black people receive on misdemeanor charges—with black people facing more severe punishment.

    Berdejo analyzed 30,807 misdemeanor cases in Wisconsin over a seven-year period and found that white people facing misdemeanor charges were more than 74 percent more likely than black people to have all charges carrying potential prison time dropped, dismissed, or reduced. And white people with no criminal history were more than 25 percent more likely to have charges reduced than black people who also had no criminal history.

    This suggests, as Berdejo concludes in his report, that prosecutors use race to judge whether a person is likely to recidivate when deciding what plea to offer.

    Prior studies have found racial disparities in the plea bargaining process. The Berdejo study differs, however, in that it analyzes a detailed statewide data set of the entire life of criminal cases, from charging to sentencing, making it more reliable and expansive.

  2. Well, Mr. and Ms. America, there you have it, from your very own Supreme Court, guilt or innocence is not the paramount consideration.
    Process and protocol are the primary concern.
    Aren’t those stories on the evening news, about the wrongfully convicted man, freed after 20/30/40 years in prison, sometimes on death row, so very moving.
    This court will help dry up those stories.
    I know guys who are doing time, for $hit they didn’t do.
    I imagine that I’ll get a couple of calls, in the next few days.
    The hope of a lot of angry/sad/desperate people got dashed , terribly.
    If you haven’t been there, you just can’t quite fathom how a court decision affects a prison population.
    There’s no place to get away from the gloom that pervades the whole institution.
    And, ladies/women/girls, next up on the big board, control over your bodies, and your beliefs.
    Proud to be an American?????

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: