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§2254(d) and Multi-Element Claims

A further note on Wetzel v. Lambert, decided today by the US Supreme Court and noted earlier in this post.  The most controversial and bitterly resisted part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 is the prohibition against granting habeas relief on a claim denied on the merits in state court "unless the adjudication of the claim-- (1) 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...."

How does this apply to precedents where the petitioner must establish more than one element -- clear more than one hurdle, you might say -- to prevail?  Two of the most common claims of this type are ineffective assistance of counsel and nondisclosure of exculpatory evidence.

Strickland v. Washington expressly authorizes courts to stop when they have decided the defendant cannot clear one of the two hurdles.  In Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510 (2003), the state court did just that.  It decided that counsel had performed adequately and so did not go on to analyze prejudice.  The Supreme Court decided that the performance analysis was unreasonable and then proceeded to an independent analysis of the prejudice prong, as there was no state court decision on this point.

Last term in Harrington v. Richter, the Court dealt with a summary dismissal of an ineffectiveness claim, with no statement of reasons.  The Court held that federal habeas relief could not be granted unless rejection of the claim would be unreasonable on both prongs.  It is odd that the unexplained decision in Richter received what amounts to greater deference than the explained decision in Wiggins.  The defense bar rails against Richter, but I still think Wiggins was wrongly decided.

And what if the state court expressly rejects the claim on more than one element?  The decision stands if it is reasonable on either element.  Under the Brady disclosure rule, the prosecution must disclose information that is both exculpatory and material.  If defendant cannot clear either hurdle, he has no claim.  A decision correct on one ground is correct, even if it is erroneous on the other.  Similarly, a decision that is reasonable on one ground is reasonable, regardless of what is says on the other.  The burden of retrying the defendant "should not be imposed unless each ground supporting the state court decision is examined and found to be unreasonable under AEDPA."  (Emphasis in original.)

I think this follows pretty clearly from Richter, but it's good to have it explicitly stated.  Thanks to Hashim Mooppan for raising this point.

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