United States Supreme Court decision limits the scope of federal habeas corpus relief of State court criminal convictions

The United States Supreme Court, in the case of Harrington v. Richter, decided, January 19, 2011, held that a trial counsel was not ineffective under the federal habeas corpus statute, called the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, when his trial counsel did not pursue a defense involving forensic evidence. The opinion was written by Justice Kennedy with six judges joining in the opinion and Justice Ginsburg concurring in the judgment. The decision is notable for the extent to which the Court goes to narrow the scope of review under the federal habeas statute. The court stated that relief under the statute is only allowed when a state court decision is contrary to clearly established holding of federal law or it involves an unreasonable application of law. In addressing the claim, the court looked at whether the State court decision involved an unreasonable application of the United States Supreme Court decision on ineffective assistance of counsel, Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

The Court held that determining whether the State’s court’s decision was an unreasonable application of Strickland is different from determining whether counsel performance was ineffective had the case came before it on direct appeal. Accordingly, the court held that federal habeas relief is precluded as long as fair minded judges may disagree and further emphasized the difficulty for a defendant satisfying this standard by holding that when the standard is general, the more leeway courts have in reaching different outcomes.

The United States Supreme Court criticized the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for reviewing the case as if it came before it on direct review rather than under the differential standard of the federal habeas statute. The court stressed that federal habeas relief is meant to be a difficult standard to satisfy. The Court underscored that the statute protects against extreme malfunctions in the criminal process and not against error that may result on appeal. The court justified this holding under the rationale that it preserves the sovereign power of the States to punish criminal offenders.

After addressing the proper standard of review, the court held that reasonable attorneys could disagree as to whether a forensic expert was necessary for the defense of the case. The court held that even if the claim were on direct review it might hold that counsel was not ineffective, but because the case was before it under the federal habeas statute, the issue was whether the State court’s application was reasonable and the United States Supreme Court found that the state’s court’s decision was clearly reasonable under the Sixth Amendment ineffective assistance of counsel case law.

The way federal habeas relief would work for a defendant convicted of a Massachusetts criminal offense is as follows. First, the defendant would be convicted after trial, appeal to the Appeals Court and to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. If these appeals were all unsuccessful, a Massachusetts criminal attorney would file a petition for federal habeas relief in the Massachusetts federal district court, alleging that the decision of the State court denied the defendant a right under the federal Constitutional or was an unreasonable application of law.

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