In Martinez v. Ryan, the United States Supreme Court held the ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel, or the lack of representation in a state post-conviction proceeding, provides cause to allow a federal habeas petitioner to overcome a procedural default on an ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim. This represented a radical shift in the criminal justice system. Prior to Martinez, state post-conviction proceedings—the typical mechanism for a criminal defendant to challenge the performance of his trial attorney—were not heavily scrutinized. It was understood and accepted that defendants did not have the right to counsel in these post-conviction proceedings. Whether a defendant represented himself in the state post-conviction proceedings or had counsel to assist him, federal review was strictly limited to those claims raised in that proceeding, regardless of how well they were investigated or presented.
Martinez’s impact in non-capital cases in Nevada could be quite significant. The need for vigorous post-conviction review in Nevada is hard to deny. There have been systematic problems in the indigent defense system that continue to this day. Despite these nearly intractable issues, the Nevada Supreme Court refused to extend Martinez to its own state post-conviction process. Rather, the court chose to elevate the concept of finality of the conviction over rigorous protection of this invaluable constitutional right. It is this cramped vision of post-conviction review that Martinez was clearly meant to address.
Randolph Fiedler is an Assistant Federal Public Defender for the District of Nevada in the Capital Habeas Unit. Megan Hoffman is the Chief of the Non-Capital Habeas Unit with the Federal Public Defender for the District of Nevada. Jonathan Kirshbaum is an Assistant Federal Public Defender for the District of Nevada in the Non-Capital Habeas Unit.
Randolph Fiedler et al., Cooperative Federalism: Nevada’s Indigent Defense Crisis and the Role of Federal Courts in Protecting the Right to Counsel in Non-Capital Cases, 1 Nev. L.J. Forum 72 (2017).