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  • Jessica Lara

SCOTUS Update: Ayestas V. Davis

Updated: Oct 25

On October 30, 2017 The Supreme Court heard the oral argument for Ayestas V. Davis, a case raising the issue of whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit erred in holding that 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f) withholds “reasonably necessary” resources to develop an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim that state habeas counsel failed to bring, where the claimant's existing evidence does not meet the ultimate burden of proof at the time the Section 3599(f) motion is made. Under 18 U.S.C. § 3599 indigent inmates facing the death penalty are provided reasonably necessary legal services. Services are considered reasonably necessary when they would be used to identify or develop possible claims by a reasonable attorney representing a paying client of ordinary means. In 1997 Carlos Ayestas was convicted and sentenced to death by a Texas court for the murder of a 67-year woman during an attempted robbery. In 2009 Ayestas filed a federal habeas petition arguing that under Wiggins v. Smith, his 6th amendment right to assistance of effective counsel was violated when the trial counsel failed to conduct a mitigation investigation since Ayestas had a history of severe substance abuse and other indicators of mental health issues. In district court Ayestas moved for funding to hire a mitigation specialist under Section 3599, the motion was denied. Mitigation Specialists differ from lawyers in that they have the clinical skills necessary in assessing mental, cognitive, or neurological conditions.

Texas saved the defense of the “substantial need” test for last and argued against the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to hear the case. Texas had originally argued that under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C § 2254(e), federal courts are prohibited from considering evidence not previously presented in state court, but then later forfeited the argument. It would have followed that any evidence uncovered by a mitigation investigation would be inadmissible in support of the Petitioner and would not be “reasonably necessary”.

Justice Alito raised the question of whether if each time a defendant is unhappy with the amount of funding they are granted under Section 3599 in the future, will there be an appeal to the appellate courts in that jurisdiction each time. Counsel for Petitioner argues that it would only be in certain limited circumstances based on an evaluation of reasonable necessity and other circumstances.

Justice Sotomayor asked, “But how does this go outside the judiciary?” Counsel for the Petitioner argued that “Not everything that a federal district judge is assigned to do is an act of judicial power. We know that from Ferreira”. However, Justice Breyer added that, there can be all kinds of things that judges are authorized by statute to do as part of their judicial duties, including reviewing matters of appointing attorney’s fees and paying for them. Breyer did not seem to completely agree with this argument, although he agreed with the cases cited by Counsel for Petitioner discussing the amount of discretion given to judges. Justice Breyer stated, “[…] this is an unusual jurisdictional argument”.

Justice Ginsburg inquired about the specialist at the state habeas level, asserting that all Ayestas mental and psychological issues should have been investigated then and there. The Counsel for Respondent argued that the 5th circuit opinion can still be read as holding that there was no prejudice held against Ayestas and no deficient performance on behalf of his trial court defense counsel.

It is also worth noting that 15 states, led by Arizona, filed an amicus brief in support of Texas, arguing that allowing the introduction of new evidence in federal court cases would frustrate the states’ interest, the victims’ interest, add to the already long delays plaguing capital cases and put an additional strain on states limited resources.


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