Even though defense counsel was not in the courtroom during a portion of trial where matters about co-defendants were discussed, this did not violate clearly established federal law to warrant granting habeas relief, the U.S. Supreme Court held March 30 in Woods v. Donald.

The Court rejected the argument that its ruling in United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984), required granting habeas relief due to ineffective assistance from counsel’s absence in this situation.

Facts:  Donald was tried jointly with two co-defendants for felony-murder and robbery. 

During trial, Donald’s attorney told the judge that a chart about phone calls did not affect his client and he didn’t “have a dog in this race.”  Later, Donald’s attorney failed to return from a recess, and was absent during about 10 minutes of testimony about the chart.

Donald argued he was denied effective assistance of counsel due to his attorney’s absence during the testimony.

The Michigan courts rejected his claim, but the U.S. District Court and Sixth Circuit granted habeas relief on grounds that the state court rulings were contrary to and unreasonably applied Cronic.  The Sixth Circuit held that the chart testimony was a “critical stage” and counsel’s absence during it was per se ineffective assistance.

Holding:  Emphasizing the deference owed to state courts under AEDPA and adopting a narrow interpretation of Cronic for habeas purposes, the Supreme Court reversed.

Under 28 U.S.C. 2254(d), a federal court may grant habeas relief only when a state court’s decision is “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by” decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Federal courts must respect state courts’ decisions, and can overturn them “only when there could be no reasonable dispute that they were wrong,” the Supreme Court said.  “This is especially true for claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, where AEDPA review must be ‘doubly deferential’ in order to afford ‘both the state court and the defense attorney the benefit of the doubt.’”

Cronic held that where a defendant is denied counsel at a “critical stage” of a proceeding, prejudice is presumed under the Sixth Amendment.

But Cronic did not directly address whether it applies to testimony regarding a co-defendant’s actions or about other defendants, the Court noted. 

Similarity to Cronic is not enough to grant relief.  “[I]f the circumstances of a case are only ‘similar to’ our precedents, then the state court’s decision is not ‘contrary to’ the holdings of those cases,” the Supreme Court held.  “Because none of our cases confront ‘the specific question presented by this case,’ the state court’s decision could not be ‘contrary to’ any holding from this Court.”

The Court emphasized, however, that because Donald’s case arose in the “narrow context” of federal habeas review, the Court expresses no opinion on the underlying Sixth Amendment principle.  “All that matters here,” the Court said, “is that we have not held that Cronic applies to the circumstances presented in this case.”

The Court’s ruling continues the trend this term of reversing grants of habeas relief not directly or narrowly based on U.S. Supreme Court precedent.  In Lopez v. Smith, 135 S.Ct. 1 (Oct. 6, 2014), and Glebe v. Frost, 135 S.Ct. 429 (Nov. 17, 2014), the Court emphasized that federal courts can rely only on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, not circuit precedent, in determining whether a constitutional principle is clearly established.