The Supreme Court Decides Death Row Prisoners Don’t Deserve Competent Lawyers

This is a perennial theme in death-row cases before these justices, where abstract interests like the finality of state convictions, the economy of judicial resources, and respect for state-federal relations are prioritized over the real substance of a defendant’s constitutional rights. Typically, in our system it is the people who have rights, while the government has only powers that are bound by them. But in the Roberts court’s imagination, the states have the right to execute death-row prisoners, and all these pesky attempts by death-penalty abolitionists and capital defense lawyers to stop them from carrying out executions are just an infringement of that right.

Sotomayor argued that, as a consequence of Monday’s ruling, indigent defendants in these circumstances in states like Arizona won’t be able to develop the factual record necessary to seek Sixth Amendment relief. “For the subset of these petitioners who receive ineffective assistance both at trial and in state post-conviction proceedings, the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee is now an empty one,” she wrote. “Many, if not most, individuals in this position will have no recourse and no opportunity for relief. The responsibility for this devastating outcome lies not with Congress, but with this Court.”

As I’ve noted before, this roster of Supreme Court justices appears committed to letting executions go forward in almost every circumstance imaginable. Principles that are cherished in other contexts, most notably religious freedom, are set aside so that states can administer lethal injections to their citizens. The justices’ enmity toward death-row prisoners and their lawyers is a breeding ground for constitutional violations—and if Monday’s ruling for Jones in particular is any indication, the possibility that they will sanction the execution of someone who might be actually innocent of their crimes.