Many people’s sense of justice would include that people wrongfully convicted of a crime should have a full and fair opportunity to have a court consider evidence that they are in fact innocent. But that doesn’t always happen in the U.S. court system, and if the Supreme Court accepts the state of Arizona’s legal argument in a current case, Shinn v. Ramirez, things could get markedly worse for defendants. The Project On Government Oversight helped support a group of former federal and state judges who are trying to prevent that. On Monday, they filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to avoid ruling in a way that would force federal judges to ignore evidence that someone might be innocent.
The background of Shinn v. Ramirez is complex. The essential point is that in general, federal law requires people appealing convictions in state cases to make their claims in state court first, rather than in federal court. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that when someone has failed to make their claim in state court because their lawyer was so bad that it violated their right to effective counsel, the person can make their claim in federal court.
In the Shinn case, one of the defendants, Barry Jones, argued in federal court that his prior lawyers were ineffective: They had failed to investigate significant evidence of his innocence during his trial, and they had not identified that failure in his state appeal. The federal district court agreed that this excused Jones’ failure to make the case in state court first. The federal court then ruled, based on this evidence, that Jones’ lawyers were in fact ineffective. The court ruled that he is entitled to a new trial.
That’s when Arizona came up with the argument it is now taking to the Supreme Court: The state claims that since Jones’ lawyers never introduced the evidence suggesting his innocence into the state proceedings, the federal courts cannot examine it. Even though the reason the evidence never came up is that Jones’ lawyers were so bad as to violate his constitutional right to adequate representation, Jones would now be out of luck.
If that sounds bizarrely counterintuitive, that’s because it is.
As the judges observe in their brief, accepting Arizona’s argument would make a mockery of justice and of the judges who are supposed to dispense it. It would mean that someone with an ineffective lawyer would never have the chance to have a judge consider all of the evidence in their case, and it would “make judges complicit in the greatest miscarriage of justice of all” by forcing them to ignore evidence that someone might be innocent. We hope the Supreme Court will reject Arizona’s attempt to short-circuit justice when it hears the case on November 1.
Amelia DeGory, Liz Fassih, and Jeff Johnson of Jones Day provided invaluable pro bono support.