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Brady and AEDPA

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Under the rule of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83 (1963), the prosecution is required to disclose material exculpatory information in its possession to the defense.  In many cases, though, the question of what is "material" is very much a matter opinion. In the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Congress limited the power of the lower federal courts to overturn state judgments on habeas corpus to correcting clearly wrong state-court decisions.  (The Supreme Court can still review them de novo on writ of certiorari.)

Some federal courts chafe at this restriction, and correcting their overreaching continues to occupy an undue portion of the Supreme Court's docket.  Today, the Court once again summarily overturned a decision of a circuit divisible by three for failure to observe this limitation.

In Wetzel v. Lambert, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously decided that an ambiguous notation on a police activity sheet regarding a suspect's identification of a "co-defendant" was not material.  Not only was the notation ambiguous, but its use as impeachment would have been cumulative to other substantial impeachment.  This is the typical close Brady question on which reasonable people can and do differ.

The Federal District Court held that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision was reasonable and denied habeas relief.  The Third Circuit held that one of the state court's grounds, the  cumulative nature of the impeachment, was unreasonable and simply ignored the other ground, the ambiguous nature of the notation.  "The failure of the Third Circuit even to address the 'ambiguous' nature of the notations, and the 'speculat[ive]' nature of Lambert's reading of them, is especially surprising, given that this was the basis of the District Court ruling."

Today, the US Supreme Court reversed 6-3 and sent the case back.  The scope of the reversal is limited, though.  The Court does not hold that either basis of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling is reasonable, but only that the Third Circuit must address them both.

Any retrial here would take place three decades after the crime, posing the most daunting difficulties for the prosecution.  That burden should not be imposed unless each ground supporting the state court decision is examined and found to be unreasonable under AEDPA.
Justice Breyer dissents, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan.

Update:  A later post on the multi-element aspect of this decision is here.

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