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SCOTUS reinforces “doubly deferential” standard of review for state court “ineffective assistance of counsel” claims

Woods v.  Etherton, USSC No. 15-723 (April 4, 2016) (per curiam), reversing Etherton v. Rivard, 800 F.3d 737 (6th Cir. 2015); SCOTUSblog page (including links to petition, response and reply)

This was a federal habeas action in which the petitioner claimed, among other things, that: (1) the state trial court’s admission of an anonymous tip violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause, (2) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the admission of the tip; and (3) appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise claims (1) and (2).  The petitioner lost because, in SCOTUS’s view, his appellate counsel and the state habeas court deserved, but were not given, the benefit of the doubt.

Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), counsel is “strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment.” Burt v. Titlow, 571 U.S. __ (2013)(slip op. at 9). Furthermore, federal courts are to afford “both the state court and the defense attorney the benefit of the doubt.” Id. at 1.  This is known as “doubly deferential” review, and it’s what SCOTUS says the Sixth Circuit failed to apply here:

Etherton’s underlying complaint is that his appellate lawyer’s ineffectiveness meant he had “no prior opportunity to cross-examine the anonymous tipster.” Brief in Opposition 11. But it would not be objectively unreasonable for a fair-minded judge to conclude—especially in light of the deference afforded trial counsel under Strickland—that the failure to raise such a claim was not due to incompetence but because the facts in the tip were uncontested and in any event consistent with Etherton’s defense. See Harrington, 562 U. S., at 105 (“Even under de novo review, the standard for judging counsel’s representation is a most deferential one.”). A fair-minded jurist could similarly conclude, again deferring under Strickland, that appellate counsel was not incompetent in drawing the same conclusion. And to reach the final point at issue before the Sixth Circuit, a fair-minded jurist—applying the deference due the state court under AEDPA—could certainly conclude that the court was not objectively unreasonable in deciding that appellate counsel was not incompetent under Strickland, when she determined that trial counsel was not incompetent under Strickland. (Slip op. at 6).

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