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A Swift Reversal on Ineffective Assistance and AEDPA

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When Burt v. Titlow was argued October 8, most observers had little doubt the state would prevail.  That is, the Supreme Court would reverse the Sixth Circuit's grant of habeas relief and reinstate Vonlee Titlow's conviction for murdering Don Rogers.  See, e.g., this post by Rory Little at SCOTUSblog.

The high court did just that today.  Opinion here.  The judgment is unanimous.  Justice Alito's opinion is joined by all except Justice Ginsburg, who wrote a brief opinion concurring in the judgment.  Here are a few notes on the opinion:

1.  The Court declines to clarify the relationship between AEDPA's two provisions on state findings of fact, §2254(d)(2) and §2254(e)(1).  My take is in CJLF's brief in Wood v. Allen, where the Court also ducked it.

2.  On state court decisions of questions of law, Justice Alito delivers a ringing endorsement of the principle of federalism, the competence of state courts to independently decide federal questions, and the strong standard of Harrington v. Richter.  By the way, federal district and circuit judges,  " 'there is no intrinsic reason why the fact that a man is a federal judge should make him more competent, or conscientious, or learned . . . than his neighbor in the state courthouse.' Stone v. Powell, 428 U. S. 465, 494, n. 35 (1976) (internal quotation marks omitted)."  So don't get too big for your britches.
3.  When a state court properly defers to decisions of counsel, and the federal court must defer to the decision of the state court, this "double deference" raises a high barrier to overturning the judgment on federal habeas.  Why does the high court have to keep saying this over and over?  Possibly because the justices have violated this rule themselves, e.g., in Rompilla v. Beard.

4.  Even if a lawyer does wrongly advise a defendant to reject a plea bargain and go to trial, what remedy can be granted when the consideration the prosecution bargained for is no longer available?  If I offer to buy your car, you decline the offer, and then you wreck the car, can you come back and force me to buy the wreck, something far different from what I offered to buy?  That was part of the problem in Lafler v. Cooper / Missouri v. Frye, and the Court did not deal with it adequately.  Justice Ginsburg ruminates on this in her separate opinion.

5.  The thing that bugs me about this case and others like it is that the ineffective assistance is entirely the defendant's own fault.  Titlow got good advice on the plea bargain from a competent lawyer, but she chose to reject it, canned the good lawyer, and hired dufus.  At some point, the Court really needs to reconsider the doctrine that all ineffectiveness claims are judged by the same standard, regardless of the circumstances of hiring of the lawyer.

3 Comments

Of course, Professor Little was openly rooting for the Court to DIG the case, thereby letting a murderer get off with little time. Given that the Sixth Circuit obviously blew off the law, it's interesting to assess Professor Little's priorities--a lawless tossing of a murderer's conviction in favor of a much lesser sentence is favorable to the Supreme Court sorting out a bit of an allegedly messy case.

Any particular thoughts on the implications of footnote 1? It jumped out at me, and I'm trying to figure out if there is more there than meets the eye.

It didn't strike me as more than a reaffirmation of the principle we helped establish long ago in McGuire, that state-law evidence questions are not subject to second-guessing in federal habeas. Did you see something more there?

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