Supreme Court Unanimously Vacates Fifth Circuit Decision Denying Capital Petitioner’s Funding Request

In Ayestas v. Davis, No. 16-6795 (Mar. 21, 2018), the United States Supreme Court unanimously held the Fifth Circuit did not apply the correct legal standard in affirming the denial of a capital habeas petitioner’s request for funds, made pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f), to investigate a trial-counsel and initial-state-habeas counsel ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

Background

Ayestas was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Texas state court. New counsel filed Ayestas’s direct appeal, which was affirmed. A third defense team unsuccessfully pursued state habeas relief, including raising a claim of trial-level ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC), but did not raise a claim that trial-level counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and present Ayestas’s mental health and drug abuse history at the penalty phase. After Ayestas’s state habeas was denied, a fourth legal team filed a federal petition which did raise the trial-level IAC claim about failure to investigate mental health at penalty phase.  The district court held the claim was procedurally barred because it was not raised in state court. That decision was later vacated by the Supreme Court and remanded for  reconsideration in light of Martinez v. Ryan, 556 U.S. 1 ( ) (holding that an Arizona prisoner seeking federal habeas relief could overcome a procedural default of a trial-level IAC claim by showing that the claim is substantial and that the state habeas counsel was also ineffective in failing to raise the claim in a state habeas proceeding); see also Trevino v. .Thaler, (applying Martinez to Texas).

On remand, Ayestas filed a motion asking the district court for funding under 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f) to develop his claim that both his trial and his state habeas counsel were ineffective. Section 3599(f) provides, in relevant part, that a district court “may authorize” funding for “investigative, expert, or other services … reasonably necessary for the representation of the defendant” in  capital habeas cases. (emphasis added).   The district court found his claim barred by procedural default.  The Fifth Circuit also rejected the funding request under its precedent, holding that Ayestas had not shown a “substantial need” for investigative or other services.

Holdings

In an opinion written by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court addressed a threshold jurisdictional issue and held that the district court’s denial of Ayestas’s funding request was a judicial decision subject to appellate review under the standard jurisdictional provisions.  In so holding, the Court rejected the state’s argument that the funding decision was unreviewable because it was non-adversarial and merely administrative.

On the merits, the Court held the Fifth Circuit did not apply the correct legal standard in affirming the denial of  Ayestas’s funding request.  The Court held the Fifth Circuit’s “substantial need” standard was more demanding than “reasonably necessary.”  What’s more, the “substantial need” standard exacerbated the difference by also requiring Ayesta to present “a viable constitutional claim that is not procedurally barred.”  The Court explained that rule is too restrictive after Trevino.  While the Court recognized that district courts have broad discretion in deciding funding requests, it stated: “In those cases in which funding stands a credible chance of enabling a habeas petitioner to overcome the obstacle of procedural default, it may be error for a district court to refuse funding.”  The Court provided further guidance to district courts exercising their funding discretion:

Proper application of the “reasonably necessary” standard thus requires courts to consider the potential merit of the claims that the applicant wants to pursue, the likelihood that the services will generate useful and admissible evidence, and the prospect that the applicant will be able to clear any procedural hurdles standing in the way.

To be clear, a funding applicant must not be expected to prove that he will be able to win relief if given the services he seeks. But the “reasonably necessary” test requires an assessment of the likely utility of the services requested, and § 3599(f) cannot be read to guarantee that an applicant will have enough money to turn over every stone.

The Court also rejected the state’s alternative ground for affirmance—that funding is never “reasonably necessary” where a habeas petitioner seeks to present a procedurally defaulted ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim that depends on facts outside the state-court record, see U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2) —remains open for the Fifth Circuit to consider on remand.

In an important procedural aside, the Supreme Court noted that the Fifth Circuit does not require petitioners to obtain a certificate of appealability (COA) to appeal a district court’s funding determination.  The COA issue was not briefed by parties and the Court found it “unnecessary to resolve the issue.” But taking “no view” of the COA issue, the Court “assume[d] for the sake of argument that the Court of Appeals could not entertain petitioner’s §3599 claim without the issuance of a COA.”  The Court also noted the district court’s ruling was “not only debatable; it was erroneous.”

Sotomayor Concurrence

In Justice Sotomayor’s lentghty concurrence, joined by Justice Ginsburg, she explains that “Ayestas has made a strong showing that he is entitled to § 3559(f) funding.”  About a district court’s discretion in funding determinations, Justice Sotomayor explained:

Exercise of that discretion may be appropriate if there is a showing of gamesmanship or where the State has provided funding for the same investigation services, as Ayestas conceded at argument. Nonetheless, the troubling failures of counsel at both the trial and state postconviction stages of Ayestas’ case are exactly the types of facts that should prompt courts to afford investigatory services to ensure that trial errors that go to a “bedrock principle in our justice system” do not go unaddressed.

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