Thursday, February 25, 2010

SCOTUS Cert Grant of Interest: Harrington v. Richter

This week the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Harrington v. Richter, No. 09-587, a habeas case out of the Ninth Circuit. Here are links to the opinion below, the docket, and SCOTUSblog's wiki on the case. From a federal-courts standpoint, this part of the order granting cert may be of interest:

"In addition to the question presented, the parties are directed to brief and argue the following question: Does AEDPA deference apply to a state court's summary disposition of a claim, including a claim under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)?"

The amount of deference federal habeas courts owe to a state court's decision on federal constitutional issues has been the subject of considerable judicial and scholarly debate, as the doctrine evolved from the days of Brown v. Allen (no deference) to Teague v. Lane (deference via a non-retroactivity principle) to the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which codified the following language in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1):

"An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States."

Whether deference is required when a state court issues only a "summary disposition" of a constitutional claim (the issue for which SCOTUS ordered briefing in Harrington) targets a potentially thorny question: How can a federal habeas court determine whether a state court's decision "involved an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law" if the state court never explained how it actually applied clearly established federal law? One possible answer: it can't, so the federal court should proceed to decide the federal issues de novo.

If readers are interested, I examine this issue (and others relating to § 2254(d)(1)) in an article from many years ago entitled: Reconceptualizing Federal Habeas Corpus for State Prisoners: How Should AEDPA's Standard of Review Operate After Williams v. Taylor?, 2001 Wisconsin Law Review 1493.


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Those interested in this case might also find an article of mine of interest: "Habeas Review of Perfunctory State Court Decisions on the Merits," 29 Am. J. Crim. L. 223 (2002), available here: I suggest that deferential review of summary or perfunctory decisions is possible.

Posted by: Scott Dodson | Feb 25, 2010 11:01:49 AM

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