WASHINGTON (CN) - Habeas challenges from two unrelated death-penalty cases seemed to divide the Supreme Court on Monday.
One of the challengers, Carlos Manuel Ayestas, has been on death row in Texas for 20 years ago after strangling a 67-year-old woman during an apparent robbery.
A Honduran national, Ayestas claimed in a federal habeas petition that his mental health problems and drug addiction should have been presented as mitigating evidence at the penalty phase of his trial.
In applying for federal funding to investigate these issues that he said his trial counsel overlooked, Ayestas cited a federal law that requires funding for investigations that are "reasonably necessary for the representation of an indigent defendant" facing the death penalty.
Ayestas appealed to the Supreme Court after a federal judge rejected his funding application and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding that he could not show a "substantial need" for the investigation, given the record in other areas of the case.
The Supreme Court took up the case to resolve whether the Fifth and 11th Circuits properly held Ayestas to the more precise “substantial-need" test, instead of the lesser standards used by most circuits.
Lee Kovarsky with the University of Maryland Law School argued for Ayestas on Monday that the substantial-need test puts an unnecessary high bar on poor people seeking habeas relief because it hinges funding on proof that the investigation would be a success.
Courts should grant requests if the request is for something a "reasonable attorney" would pursue in a case, Kovarsky argued.
Given that Ayestas was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Kovarsky said the absence of arguments about mental health problems and drug addiction during the penalty phase of the trial raises questions about the defense.
"It is inconceivable that a reasonable attorney having received this file, getting this case, would do anything other than precisely what federal habeas counsel did in this case," Kovarsky said. "And the reasonable attorney standard is the right standard because it is the standard that Congress picked."
Kovarsky specifically said the reasonable attorney conjured for the case would be one with finite funds, not someone representing a "Richie Rich" client who could spend wildly.
Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller argued Kovarsky's proposed standard is too lax and that taxpayer money should not fund investigations into claims a defendant would not be able to bring at trial.
"Whether you call it a plausible analysis or would a reasonable attorney with finite means spend money on it - a reasonable attorney with finite means is going to look at, is this claim barred," Keller asked. "Is it speculative? Is the evidence that I would attempt to get into the record, is it duplicative? Those are the three elements of the 'substantial need' formulation that the Fifth Circuit is using."