Supreme Court Strengthens Right to Counsel for Challenging Trial Lawyer’s Ineffectiveness


The United States Supreme Court decided today in Trevino v. Thaler to extend the rule that allows a defendant to challenge his trial lawyer’s ineffectiveness in federal court where he is unable to do so in state court.

Last year, the Court ruled in Martinez v. Ryan that, because Arizona law bars a defendant from challenging his trial lawyer’s effectiveness during direct appeal, postconviction proceedings provide the defendant’s “one and only” chance to raise that claim, and that one chance is not a fair one if the defendant doesn’t have an effective attorney. Accordingly, the Court held that a defendant who doesn’t have an effective attorney in state postconviction proceedings can challenge his trial lawyer’s ineffectiveness for the first time in federal court.

The Court considered a case out of Texas, which unlike Arizona allows defendants to raise claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on direct appeal, at least in theory. The “structure and design of the Texas system in actual operation, however, make it ‘virtually impossible’ for an ineffective assistance claim to be presented on direct review,” the Court found.

Texas does not afford prisoners during direct review an effective way to add to the trial record the evidence they need to prove an ineffectiveness claim. As a result, the Court concluded “that the Texas procedural system — as a matter of its structure, design, and operation — does not offer most defendants a meaningful opportunity to present a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on direct appeal.”

In addition, the Court reasoned that it would be unfair not to apply Martinez in Texas because Texas courts have directed defendants and lawyers to raise ineffectiveness claims in postconviction, rather than on direct review, and they have relied on that advice.

The Court in Trevino reaffirmed that the right to adequate assistance of counsel at trial is “critically important” and that defendants must have a meaningful opportunity for review of their ineffective assistance-of-trial-counsel claims.