Everyone knows that excessive caseloads, poor funding, and a lack of training plague indigent defense delivery systems throughout the states, such that the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright is largely unfulfilled. Commentators have disagreed about how best to breathe life into Gideon. Many disclaim any possibility that federal habeas corpus review of state criminal cases could catalyze reform given the many procedural obstacles that currently prevent state prisoners from getting into federal court. But the Supreme Court has recently taken a renewed interest in using federal habeas review to address the problem of ineffective attorneys in state criminal cases. This year, in Martinez v. Ryan, the Supreme Court relied on equitable principles to sweep aside procedural barriers to federal habeas review and permit state prisoners to raise ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims in federal court.
Not surprisingly, many lower courts have resisted the Supreme Court’s recent attempts to permit state prisoners to have their ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims heard on the merits. But this battle is far from over. After documenting the ways in which lower courts are restrictively interpreting the Supreme Court’s recent decisions expanding the grounds for cause to excuse a state prisoner’s procedural default of an ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim, I will suggest that the defendants still have an important equitable card to play. That card is the idea of adequacy. As lower courts attempt to re-characterize state procedures so as to avoid recent Supreme Court holdings that would open the federal doors to state prisoners’ ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims, they inadvertently set themselves up for challenges to the adequacy of their state procedures. This shift is significant, I will explain, because of important differences in how cause and adequacy arguments influence state behavior. Whereas cause grounds are typically personal to the defendant, adequacy challenges are often used to expose systemic failures in a state’s procedures. As a result, adequacy challenges have more potential to catalyze change in states’ procedures.