SCOTUS just quietly slashed your Sixth Amendment rights
The Supreme Court’s recent assault on our rights has gone far beyond Roe and Dobbs. The Supreme Court quietly issued a 6-3 ruling recently on Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez, siding against two Arizonans on death row who sought to challenge their convictions in federal court after receiving shoddy legal support. The majority’s rationale, which was based on a 1996 federal law, was that state sovereignty and legal expediency must be protected at all costs.
Unfortunately, those costs are clear. The Court’s ruling slashed Americans’ constitutional right to effective counsel by eviscerating the life-saving accountability mechanism that allows people to appeal unjust rulings. The six conservative justices have plainly prioritized the legal system’s power to convict and kill over our human right to live.
What is less clear is why, in a nation where folks will literally risk children’s lives to maintain their Second Amendment rights, Americans seem perfectly happy to hand over their Sixth Amendment rights with hardly a thought. The silence on social media and in our public discourse about this ruling is alarming — we should be very scared and very, very angry.
As the executive director and founder of a nonprofit that works to help low-income Americans navigate the complexities of the legal system by bolstering public defense resources, I know all too well that for many, this case — which is shrouded in the deliberately-exclusionary language of legal discourse — feels more like a remote technicality than an assault on basic rights.
But let me assure you: If you’re worried about your Constitutional rights as a citizen, you should recognize that this is one of the most egregious governmental oversteps of our lifetime, right in line with the current oppressive theme of the Roberts Court.
People’s lives have been irrevocably changed by the recent Dobbs opinion that overturned Roe, stripping away what protection of our bodily autonomy remained in Constitutional law. The Supreme Court declined to issue any opinions the week after the Uvalde shooting, and those were right who guessed that it was because their ruling inNew York State Rifle & Pistol Association v Bruenwould have looked especially ghoulish in the wake of the massacres in Buffalo, Orange County, and Uvalde — as well as the 12 more mass shootings that took place over Memorial Day Weekend.
The decision in Shinn, though, is no less ghoulish: It tells every American citizen, yet again, in yet another context, that the rights and protections to which we thought we were entitled will no longer protect us from bad government.
And don’t be fooled — not committing crimes won’t keep you safe on this one.
We live in a world where innocent people are prosecuted every day. This ruling erodes protections for any American who might — at any time — be perceived guilty of any sort of wrongdoing. Whether it be the person in the midst of a miscarriage who is accused of committing an abortion in a red state, or the person who rented a car to visit family and was accused of stealing it despite a complete lack of evidence. It truly could be any of us at any time. All it takes is running into the wrong cop or prosecutor at the wrong time. And after Dobbs, it might take as little as a bad pregnancy outcome, whatever the cause.
Of course, it’s most likely to be those of us who happen to be Black or Brown or poor. It’s critical to acknowledge that the system disproportionately accuses Black and Brown Americans of wrongdoing, with Black Americans being incarcerated at nearly five times and Hispanics being incarcerated 1.3 times the rate of whites. But when the law no longer protects American life, liberty and property against legal incompetence with lifetime stakes, no individual can consider themselves outside the zone of harm.
The police and prosecutors we are relying on to arbitrate justice are often wildly ineffective and sometimes operating with ulterior motives. These are the folks who booked a man on charges of possessing methamphetamine because the donut he was eating in his car left a white glaze on the floorboard. I myself have witnessed prosecutors bring cases to court that have no business being there — ranging from felony accusations with no basis and alibi witnesses to baseless drug cases based on the word of a disgraced police officer. Even DNA evidence, so often considered the gold standard of proof, is subject to error and incompetence, resulting in horrifying miscarriages of justice.
This smattering of examples points to the fact that wrongful convictions are a widespread fixture of the criminal legal system. Some groups estimate that as many as one out of every 100 people charged with a crime are completely innocent. My experience as a public defender leads me to believe that the real number may, in fact, be higher — when you consider people whose behavior may have been flawed but whose prosecutions alleged ludicrously stretched versions of the truth.
The people best situated to stand between ordinary folks and the nightmare of wrongful conviction are public defenders, who serve around 80 percent of accused people and have the confidential access needed to build an intimate understanding of their cases. Public defenders are the last bulwark between the individual and the life-altering consequences of criminal punishment, designated as an upstream, automatic resource for the vast majority of individuals.
Though these jobs are not glamorous, defender gigs can be some of the most competitive to attain in the legal field, as more young lawyers choose the righteous path of championing liberty and equity, resulting in a next generation of superb counsel.
But even the best lawyer cannot do their best work under impossible circumstances, and continual under-resourcing of defense agencies while prosecutions skyrocket can force the citizenry to endure poor counsel. Though governments across the country are beginning to realize the stunning potential defenders hold as an engine of opportunity and safety, that does not absolve our government of the responsibility to ensure that the rights it has conferred on its citizens are realized. If the state shoulders the role of prosecution, it must ensure an accordant protection against its own errors, and that means resourcing and supporting public defense.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez has sentenced Americans — particularly low-income Americans of color — to irreversible life and even death sentences. It sets forth a principle I cannot imagine any American actually believes: that the government’s efficiency in killing its own citizens is more important than the citizen’s right to protest their innocence… that greasing the machinery of death is more important than ensuring the government hasn’t got it wrong.
It’s a gruesome conclusion from a court that seems bent on increasing the suffering of the American people.
Emily Galvin-Almanza is the co-founder and Executive Director of Partners for Justice, a new model of collaborative public defense designed to empower public defenders nationwide. Prior to founding PFJ, Emily worked as a public defender in both California and New York. Follow her on Twitter @GalvinAlmanza