The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday broke a recent string of unanimous decisions by dividing 5-4 in two prisoners’ cases. Is it an inkling of what is to come when June arrives?

After the long Memorial Day weekend, the justices got off to a slow start with those two rulings out of 30 pending cases and two grants of review, one involving a circuit split over state-initiated mass actions and the Class Action Fairness Act (Mississippi v. AU Optronics Corp.).

The court’s potential blockbuster affirmative action challenge—Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin—remains the oldest outstanding case. It was argued in the first session of the term in October.

The two federal habeas decisions represent victories for the prisoners, with the vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy making the crucial difference in each.

In Trevino v. Thaler, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the five-justice majority, extended a narrow 2012 decision concerning the right of a state prisoner to raise a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in a federal habeas proceeding after failing to do so in a state post-conviction proceeding.

That 2012 ruling, Martinez v. Ryan, centered on Arizona’s procedural rule requiring a prisoner to raise that claim during his first state collateral review proceeding, or lose the claim. The prisoner failed to raise the claim and argued that the federal court should excuse his "default" because he not only had ineffective counsel at trial but also during his state collateral proceeding. There is no constitutional right to counsel in state collateral review proceedings.

In Martinez, the justices held that lack of counsel on collateral review might excuse a prisoner’s state law procedural default. The court qualified its Martinez decision by saying it applied where states said ineffective counsel claims must be raised in the first state collateral proceeding. In Trevino, however, Texas law, unlike Arizona law, did not require those claims to be brought in the initial collateral proceeding. Instead, Texas law permitted the claims to be brought initially on direct appeal.

Breyer wrote that the Texas procedural system "as a matter of its structure, design, and operation—does not offer most defendants a meaningful opportunity to present a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on direct appeal." He said there was no significant difference between Trevino and Martinez.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., joined by Justice Samuel Alito Jr., dissented, accusing the majority of throwing over "the crisp limit we made so explicit just last Term." He added, "The questions raised by this equitable equation are as endless as will be the state-by-state litigation it takes to work them out." Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, also dissented, reiterating the reasons for his dissent in Martinez.

Utah and 24 other states filed an amicus brief supporting Texas. They warned that the vast majority of States do not channel all ineffectiveness-assistance claims to collateral proceedings. Extending Martinez, they said, "will affect the outcome of thousands of federal habeas proceedings nationwide and could effectively compel many States to provide state-collateral-review counsel where previously they had not."

In the second habeas case, the same five justices prevailed in an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In McQuiggin v. Perkins, the majority held that a prisoner’s convincing showing of actual innocence can overcome the one-year statute of limitations in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) for filing a federal habeas petition.

"To invoke the miscarriage-of-justice exception to AEDPA’s statute of limitations, we repeat, a petitioner ‘must show that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in the light of the new evidence,’" wrote Ginsburg. "Unexplained delay in presenting new evidence bears on the determination whether the petitioner has made the requisite showing."

Writing for the dissenters, Justice Scalia said, "’Actual innocence’ has, until today, been an exception only to judge-made, prudential barriers to habeas relief, or as a means of channeling judges’ statutorily conferred discretion not to apply a procedural bar. Never before have we applied the exception to circumvent a categorical statutory bar to relief. We have not done so because we have no power to do so."

In other business, the justices, without comment, declined to hear Indiana’s attempt to overturn a federal appellate court decision striking down its state law prohibiting entities that perform abortions from receiving state grants or contracts. (Secretary of Indiana Family and Social Services Administration v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana). Planned Parenthood challenged the law, claiming it violated the provider-choice provision of the Medicaid Act and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed.

"Planned Parenthood is reimbursed by the government to provide health care just like every other medical provider," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, in a statement. "Politicians in all 50 states should take note: blocking Planned Parenthood from funding to provide preventive health care is both unlawful, and deeply unpopular."

Richards noted that state efforts in Arizona, Indiana, North Carolina, Kansas, and Tennessee to cut off women’s access to Planned Parenthood health centers and preventive health services have been blocked in the courts.

Marcia Coyle can be contacted at