Federal habeas corpus allows state prisoners to seek relief in federal court on the grounds that they were convicted or sentenced “in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” However, prisoners seeking habeas corpus relief face numerous barriers imposed by the courts and Congress that prevent federal review of state court convictions. Failure to comply with state procedural rules in postconviction proceedings results in “procedural default,” which precludes prisoners from raising defaulted claims in federal court. Prisoners do not have a constitutional right to counsel in postconviction proceedings, and procedural default is frequently the result of inadequate counsel in those proceedings.
After decades of tightening restrictions on federal habeas review, the Supreme Court in Martinez v. Ryan finally took a step toward broadening access to federal habeas corpus. The Court declined to extend the constitutional right to counsel to prisoners in postconviction proceedings, but ruled that ineffective assistance of counsel in those proceedings may constitute cause to excuse procedural default in limited circumstances. Although prisoners generally may not assert claims in federal habeas proceedings that they failed to raise in state proceedings, the Martinez Court ruled that prisoners may assert ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims in federal court when failure to raise such claims in state proceedings was caused by ineffective assistance of counsel in those proceedings.
Martinez signals a landmark shift toward broadening access to federal habeas review based on the idea that prisoners should receive at least one full and fair review of constitutional claims. The holding provides an avenue for habeas petitioners with inadequate counsel in a collateral proceeding to overcome procedural default and have their claims heard in federal court. The Court affirmed the importance of ensuring that prisoners receive at least one full and fair review of inadequate-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims and proved willing to open an avenue for federal habeas review of those claims in limited circumstances.
Although Martinez represents a significant step toward ensuring a full and fair review of constitutional claims, the limited holding does not ensure that prisoners will be adequately represented by counsel or have a fair chance to prevail on their claims in federal court. The Court declined to guarantee a right to counsel in collateral proceedings, meaning that prisoners without effective counsel will still face significant challenges in vindicating their constitutional rights in federal habeas review. As the Court recognized, proving an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim presents special difficulties for pro se prisoners. The Martinez decision may lead to fewer habeas petitions being dismissed for procedural default, but the likelihood of ultimate success will remain small for pro se prisoners raising claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.
Lower court decisions narrowly interpreting Martinez have already demonstrated additional limitations of the Court’s ruling. These decisions indicate that Martinez may have little impact beyond ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims. Although the Martinez rule could logically be expanded to other claims, courts inclined to limit habeas relief will likely read Martinez narrowly in order to deny relief on other types of claims. If courts continue to apply this narrow interpretation, Martinez will do nothing to lower the barriers that prevent prisoners from raising other types of procedurally defaulted claims in federal court.
Martinez may allow more prisoners with meritorious constitutional claims to have their day in court. However, the Martinez Court did not go far enough in easing the substantial barriers to accessing habeas corpus relief. The Court missed an opportunity to guarantee that prisoners with vital constitutional claims will be represented by counsel in collateral proceedings. Although Martinez represents an important step toward ensuring that prisoners receive a full and fair review of constitutional claims, prisoners without effective counsel still face significant challenges in vindicating their constitutional rights in federal habeas review.
For further explanation and analysis, see Mary Dewey, Martinez v. Ryan: A Shift Toward Broadening Access to Federal Habeas Corpus, 90 Denv. U. Law. R. ___ (forthcoming 2013).
 J.D. Candidate, 2014, University of Denver Sturm College of Law.