Court Rejects Fifth Circuit’s “Substantial Need” Test For Funding Under 18 U.S.C. sec. 3599(f)

Under 18 U.S.C. sec. 3599(f), a defendant charged with a crime punishable by death can petition the trial court for funds that would be “reasonably necessary” for investigative, expert, or other services needed for the defense. In Ayestas v. Davis, a man sentenced to death made such a petition to support his federal habeas claim for ineffective assistance of counsel. The trial court denied the application based on a procedural default, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed under its standard that defendants must show a “substantial need” for such services to support “a viable constitutional claim that is not procedurally barred.” The Court, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Alito, reversed, holding that the Fifth Circuit’s “substantial need” test was more stringent than the “reasonably necessary” test set forth in the statute. The Court also determined that it had jurisdiction to hear an appeal of a denial of funding because the ruling was not “administrative” in nature. However, the Court did not consider whether funding could be “reasonably necessary” in pursuit of a procedurally defaulted ineffective assistance of counsel claim, and so left that issue for the Fifth Circuit to consider on remand. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, lodged a concurrence, arguing that the defendant had shown on the record that such funding was “reasonably necessary” under the statute.