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State Procedures for Appointment of Competent Counsel in Post-Conviction Review of Capital Sentences

Date of Issuance:

Statutory provisions originally enacted as section 107(a) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, and now codified as chapter 154 of title 28, U.S. Code, may be construed to permit the Attorney General to exercise his delegated authority to define the term “competent” within reasonable bounds and independent of the counsel competency standards a state itself establishes, and to apply that definition in determining whether to certify that a state is eligible for special procedures in federal habeas corpus proceedings involving review of state capital convictions.

If the Attorney General chooses to establish a federal minimum standard of counsel competency that state mechanisms must meet in order to qualify for certification, he should do so in a manner that still leaves the states some significant discretion in establishing and applying their own counsel competency standards.

These statutory provisions may reasonably be construed to permit the Attorney General to evaluate a state’s appointment mechanism—including the level of attorney compensation—to assess whether it is adequate for purposes of ensuring that the state mechanism will result in the appointment of competent counsel.

Updated December 22, 2020