Sexton v Beaudreaux
The Supreme Court, in Sexton v. Beaudreaux, issued June 28, again chastised the Ninth Circuit for not giving sufficient deference to state court rulings on federal habeas review.
Nicholas Beaudreaux claimed his trial counsel had been ineffective in not moving to suppress a witness’ identification testimony on grounds that police had used unduly suggestive identification procedures to get the witness to identify Beaudreaux.
California courts summarily denied the claim without an opinion.
On federal habeas review, the Ninth Circuit reversed.
But the Supreme Court, in a per curiam opinion, reversed the Ninth Circuit.
Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, a federal court cannot grant habeas relief unless the state courts’ decision on the merits was contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, or was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.
“When, as here, there is no reasoned state-court decision on the merits, the federal court must determine what arguments or theories … could have supported the state court’s decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree,” with them, the Court said. “If such disagreement is possible, then the petitioner’s claim must be denied.”
“A fairminded jurist could conclude that counsel’s performance was not deficient because counsel reasonably could have determined that the motion to suppress would have failed,” the Court said. While the witness’ initial description was vague, there were many reasons why the witness’ identification could be deemed reliable under the totality of the circumstances.
The Ninth Circuit failed to sufficiently defer to the state court in these circumstances. “The Ninth Circuit essentially evaluated the merits de novo, only tacking on a perfunctory statement at the end of its analysis asserting that the state court’s decision was unreasonable,” the Court said.
“Instead of considering the arguments or theories that could have supported the state court’s summary decision … the Ninth Circuit considered arguments against the state court’s decision that Beaudreaux never even made in his state habeas petition.”
Because the Strickland standard for ineffectiveness is a “general standard,” “a state court has even more latitude to reasonably determine that a defendant has not satisfied that standard,” the Court said.
Justice Breyer dissented without an opinion.