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Opinion Analyses: Harbison and Mirzayance

Opinion recaps for Harbison v. Bell (07-8521) and Knowles v. Mirzayance (07-1315) are now available on SCOTUSWiki (links direct to the wiki case page) and can be read below the jump. Thanks to Stanford student Ruthie Zemel for her coverage of Mirzayance.

Harbison v. Bell Opinion Analysis

Of the 15 criminal law cases decided by the Court so far, four have ruled in favor of the criminal defendant: Jimenez v. Quarterman, Hedgpeth v. Pulido, Chambers v. United States, and now Harbison v. Bell (07-8521). While the Court expanded the rights of indigent defendants, the opinion itself focused only on how expansively to construe the statutory language in question.  The opinion held:

1.                  18 U.S.C. § 3599 provides federally funded counsel for state clemency proceedings for indigent defendants.

2.                  A certificate of appealability (COA) is not required to appeal the denial of a motion to expand the authority of appointed counsel or to appoint counsel.

Justice Stevens’s majority opinion reversing the Sixth Circuit’s decision (background available at the Wiki link above) was joined by Justices Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer. The Chief Justice and Justice Thomas each filed an opinion concurring in the judgment but further picking apart the statutory language. Justice Scalia’s opinion, which was joined by Justice Alito, agreed with the majority’s judgment on COA but dissented from the judgment on appointed counsel, confronting the logic of the Court’s interpretation and the statute itself, which he called “a paragon of shoddy draftsmanship.”

The absence of the word “federal” in Section 3599-enacted as part of the Terrorist Death Penalty Enhancement Act of 2005-formed the crux of the opinion: for which kinds of capital defendants, outlined in subsection (a), and in which proceedings, outlined in subsection (e), must the U.S. fund counsel?

Justice Stevens’s opinion for the majority held that subsection (a)(2), in its reference to 28 U.S.C. 2254 habeas proceedings of state defendants, clearly triggers the application of subsection (e) to both state and federal litigants.

Subsection (e) is what really places state defendants within the purview of the statute and affirms Harbison’s argument, Justice Stevens explained. The phrase “executive or other clemency” implicates state defendants, as only states allow non-executives to grant clemency. Further, Congress’s repetition of  the word “available” three times in the subsection does not, contrary to the Government’s argument, reflect an intention to limit the class of defendants based on what remedies are available to them, but instead “indicates the breadth of the representation contemplated.”

Counsel’s responsibility to “represent the defendant throughout every subsequent stage of available judicial proceedings,” as enumerated in subsection (e), is limited by when she was appointed: if at (a)(1)(A), before judgment, she must represent the defendant from pretrial to post-conviction; if (a)(1)(B), after judgment, from appeals onward; and if (a)(2), during habeas proceedings, just at post-conviction.

But: federal funded habeas counsel may not represent defendants in state court judicial proceedings after a grant of federal habeas relief. A  retrial or state appellate proceeding would be a “new” and not “subsequent” proceeding; it would also be moot by the fact that the state must provide trial counsel for indigent defendants.

The Chief Justice agreed that nothing in the statute’s language explicitly excludes state litigants-but he deemed it “highly unlikely that Congress intended federal habeas petitioners to keep their federal counsel during subsequent state judicial proceedings.” He would have sided with the Government on subsection (e), except for the “no federal defenders after federal habeas” interpretation given by the majority..

Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion protested reading “federal” into parts of the statute to prevent possible “slippery slope” policy implications indicated by the majority and Roberts’ concurrence. Because the statute simply never says “federal,” there are no extratextual federal implications limiting or expanding the class of defendants.

Justice Scalia’s dissent disputed the majority’s distinction between subsection (a)(1) and (2), which held that (a)(1) specifically defines federal capital defendants but does not preclude (a)(2) from including state litigants. He read subsection (a) as a whole, providing federally funded counsel for capital defendants appearing either on federal charges or in federal habeas proceedings; this does not establish a special class of state litigants in federal proceedings to whom subsection (e) applies. Further, he found it “absurd” that the Court interpreted the law’s meaning by ruling out superfluous wording in a statute “teeming with superfluity.”

According to the amicus curiae brief filed by the governors of states that administer the death penalty, this ruling will have a meaningful impact on their clemency decisions, by providing capital inmates with a federally funded attorney who has the most complete information to prepare the fact-intensive clemency petitions, where other funding is sometimes not available.

Knowles v. Mirzayance Opinion Analysis

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that Mirzayance failed to demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel even under a de novo standard. The opinion, authored by Justice Thomas, emphasized both the deferential standard for ineffective assistance claims and Section 2254(d)’s “doubly deferential” standard. It also detailed a sequence of errors made by the court of appeals.

Justice Thomas first faulted the Ninth Circuit for applying an improper “nothing to lose” standard to the state court decision that the court of appeals itself admitted was “unrecognized” by the Supreme Court. A state court cannot be found unreasonable for “declin[ing] to apply a specific legal rule that has not been squarely established by this Court,” the opinion reasoned.

The opinion next reproached the Ninth Circuit for its application of the more general Strickland test. According to the Justices, counsel’s performance was neither “deficient” nor “prejudicial” even under a de novo standard. The Ninth Circuit’s contrary result, Justice Thomas found, relied on an impermissible substitution of its own factual findings for the district court’s- on occasion “[w]ithout even referring to the Magistrate Judge’s finding” or “mention[ing] the clearly-erroneous standard, let alone apply[ing] it.”

The Court declined to respond to Mirzayance’s late challenge to application of the Section 2254(d) standard in the case of an unexplained, summary state court opinion. The case was reversed and remanded for denial of habeas relief.