The Lawletter Vol 35 No 4, March 4, 2011
The U.S. Supreme Court recently discussed the strict standard as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), to overturn a state court criminal decision on a federal petition for writ of habeas corpus by a person in state custody. In Harrington v. Richter, 131 S. Ct. 770 (2011), the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Ninth Circuit on rehearing en banc, which had granted habeas relief to a state prisoner on his claim that counsel had rendered ineffective assistance of counsel.
Initially, the Supreme Court held that the standard that must be met to grant federal habeas relief to a person in custody "pursuant to the judgment of a State court . . . with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court," 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), applies even when the state court has issued a summary judgment without an opinion explaining the reasons relief has been denied. The Court further held that when a federal claim has been presented to a state court and the state court has denied relief, it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state law procedural principles to the contrary.Pursuant to § 2254(d), federal habeas relief may not be granted unless it is shown that the earlier state court's decision "was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of" federal law then clearly established in the holdings of the Supreme Court, id. § 2254(d)(1), or that it "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts" in light of the record before the state court, id. § 2254(d)(2). The Court in Harrington stated that under this standard, a state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief as long as "fairminded jurors could disagree" on the correctness of the state court's decision. 131 S. Ct. at 786. In discussing the Ninth Circuit's misapplication of the "unreasonableness question," the Court stated: "It bears repeating that even a strong case for relief does not mean that the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable." Id. The Court observed that "[i]f this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be." Id. The Court then rejected the Ninth Circuit's application of the standard in the context of a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, observing how difficult it is to satisfy the two-pronged test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), to establish ineffective assistance, and further observing that establishing that a state court's application of Strickland was unreasonable under § 2254(d) "is all the more difficult." 131 S. Ct. at 788.