Understanding the Martinez Cause and Prejudice Standard for Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims

In the realm of post-conviction proceedings, the cause and prejudice standard is a significant legal doctrine that can help prisoners overcome procedural default of their ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claims. This standard was established by the Supreme Court in Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1, 132 S. Ct. 1309 (2012), and further clarified in Shinn v. Ramirez, 142 S. Ct. 1718 (2022). This post aims to demystify the Martinez standard and shed light on its implications for prisoners seeking to raise IAC claims for the first time in state habeas proceedings.

The Martinez Standard Explained

In Martinez, the Supreme Court recognized that attorney error can serve as “cause” to excuse procedural default of a trial counsel IAC claim when a state requires prisoners to raise such claims for the first time in post-conviction proceedings. To meet the Martinez cause requirement, a petitioner must show that their post-conviction counsel (PCC) in the initial-review collateral proceeding was ineffective under the standard established in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984) – the benchmark for evaluating IAC claims. The Strickland standard requires proving both deficient performance and resulting prejudice.

Substantial IAC Claim and Overlap with Prejudice

To establish prejudice under Martinez, a petitioner must demonstrate that the underlying trial counsel IAC claim is “substantial” – in other words, it has some merit. This requirement is not as stringent as proving the merits of the underlying claim, but it necessitates that the IAC claim is not frivolous and has a reasonable chance of success. Notably, there is considerable overlap between the cause and prejudice requirements, as each considers the strength and validity of the underlying IAC claim.

The Importance of Adequate Counsel in Initial Habeas Proceedings

Martinez recognized that prisoners facing procedural default due to state requirements may face difficulties in vindicating substantial IAC claims if they lack effective representation during the initial habeas proceeding. The Court held that an effective attorney is essential in these proceedings, and an ineffective post-conviction counsel can establish cause for the procedural default.

Turning to the Merits After Establishing Cause

Only when a federal court has determined that the procedural default is excused under Martinez can it proceed to review the merits of the underlying IAC claim. It is important to understand that a finding of cause and prejudice does not automatically entitle the petitioner to habeas relief. Instead, it allows the court to consider the merits of the claim, which would have otherwise been procedurally defaulted.


The Martinez cause and prejudice standard provides an avenue for prisoners to overcome the procedural default of their IAC claims in states that mandate raising such claims for the first time in post-conviction proceedings. By demonstrating that their post-conviction counsel was ineffective under Strickland and that the underlying IAC claim has some merit, prisoners can proceed to have their claims evaluated on their merits. Understanding this standard is crucial for both prisoners seeking relief and legal practitioners advocating on their behalf.

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