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Ayestas v. Davis: Supreme Court rejects restrictive test for obtaining expert and investigative funding in federal cases

“To be clear, a funding applicant must not be expected to prove that he will be able to win relief if given the services he seeks,” the Court concluded.  “But the ‘reasonably necessary' test requires an assessment of the likely utility of the services requested.”
Applicants seeking funding for expert and investigative assistance under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 3599 must only show that their requests are “reasonably necessary” for their cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled March 21 in Ayestas v. Davis
 
The Court rejected a higher standard, imposed by the Fifth Circuit, which required applicants to show both a “substantial need” for services, and that the merits of their claims were not procedurally barred.
 
Facts
           
Carlos Ayestas was convicted of murder in Texas and sentenced to death.  His trial attorneys investigated and presented very little mitigating evidence at his trial.  Nothing was presented about Ayestas' mental illness or substance abuse.
 
Ayestas then sought state postconviction relief, but did not raise any claims about mental illness or substance abuse.
 
After state courts denied relief, Ayestas, on federal habeas review, raised, for the first time, a claim that this trial attorneys had been ineffective in failing to investigate and present evidence of his mental illness and substance abuse.
 
Ayestas asked the District Court for $20,000 in funding for expert and investigative assistance to prove his ineffective assistance claim.
 
The District Court denied funding under Fifth Circuit precedent which required a showing of “substantial need” for the services and that the underlying claim is not procedurally defaulted.  The claim was procedurally defaulted because it was not raised in state court.
 
The Fifth Circuit affirmed the denial of funding.
 
Holding
 
The Supreme Court reversed, in a unanimous opinion.
 
Sec. 3599(f) states that courts may provide funding for investigative or expert services in federal cases when the services are “reasonably necessary” for the representation.
 
 “What the statutory phrase calls for, we conclude, is a determination by the district court, in the exercise of its discretion, as to whether a reasonable attorney would regard the services as sufficiently important” for the case, the Court held.
 
Not only did the Fifth Circuit's “substantial need” test impose a “heavier burden” than the statute requires, the Court said, but “the Fifth Circuit exacerbated the problem” by imposing an additional requirement that the applicant show “a viable constitutional claim that is not procedurally defaulted.”
 
The Fifth Circuit's rule is “too restrictive” in light of Martinez v. Ryan (2012), and Trevino v. Thaler (2013), which allowed habeas petitioners to overcome procedural default of trial-level ineffective assistance claims by showing that their claim is substantial, and that state habeas counsel was ineffective in failing to raise the claim in state court, the Court said.
 
 “Proper application of the ‘reasonably necessary' standard thus requires courts to consider the potential merit of claims that the applicant wants to pursue, the likelihood that the services will generate useful and admissible evidence, and the prospect that the applicant will be able to clear any procedural hurdles standing in the way,” the Court said. 
 
 “To be clear, a funding applicant must not be expected to prove that he will be able to win relief if given the services he seeks,” the Court concluded.  “But the ‘reasonably necessary' test requires an assessment of the likely utility of the services requested.”
 
The Court remanded the case for the lower courts to consider the funding request in light of the correct legal standard.
 
Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, concurred in the opinion, but wrote separately to say that they believed Ayestas should be granted funding on remand under the Court's “reasonably necessary” test.

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