SCOTUS Hears Arguments on AEDPA Deference

This past Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Wood v. Allen, trying to come up with a working definition of AEDPA deference in habeas corpus cases.Petitioner’s trial teams had three attorneys (one of which had less experience than the others). This lawyer handled the penalty phase, during which he failed to present mitigation evidence, obtained from a competency evaluation, of Wood’s significant mental impairments. By a vote of ten to two, the jury recommended a death sentence, which the trial judge imposed. The Alabama State Courts rejected his petition for post-conviction relief, in which he alleged that his trial counsel’s failure to investigate and present evidence of his mental impairments at the penalty phase constituted ineffective assistance.  Instead, the state court held, the failure to present evidence of Wood’s mental impairments was a strategic decision made by Wood’s more experienced counsel.Wood then filed a federal habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, the section of AEDPA that governs petitions by state prisoners.  Section 2254 contains two subsections that relate to state court factual findings:  subsection (d)(2), which precludes relief unless the state court proceeding “resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding”; and subsection (e)(1), which creates a presumption that “a determination of a factual issue made by a state court” is correct unless rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.The district court granted relief, concluding that a “finding by the state courts that a strategic decision was made not to investigate or introduce . . . evidence of mental retardation is an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the clear and convincing evidence presented in the record.”  The court found that Wood’s less experienced lawyer was left unsupervised to investigate mitigating evidence; moreover, the failure to introduce evidence of Wood’s mental impairments stemmed from his counsel’s inexperience rather than a strategic decision.On appeal, a divided panel of the Eleventh Circuit reversed.  In the majority’s view, there was ample evidence to support the state court’s finding that Wood’s more experienced counsel made a strategic decision not to present mental health evidence.  In a footnote, the court reasoned that under AEDPA it was required only to “examin[e] whether there is evidence to support the state courts’ findings”; here, the state court’s determination of the facts was not unreasonable because “Wood has not presented evidence, much less clear and convincing evidence,” that his counsel’s decision was not strategic.  The dissent disagreed sharply, arguing that the majority “ignore[d] specific and direct evidence of ineffectiveness of of counsel in favor of nothing but pure speculation that the failure to investigate and present mitigating evidence was a ‘strategic decision.’”In his petition for certiorari, Wood argued that there is a circuit split regarding the interaction between subsections (d)(2) and (e)(1).  The Eighth and Eleventh Circuits, he claimed, apply both subsections to all petitions, holding that the state court’s determination of the facts is unreasonable only if the petitioner has rebutted the factual findings by clear and convincing evidence.  In contrast, the Third and the Ninth Circuits have held that the two subsections instead apply in two different scenarios challenging a state court’s factual findings: subsection (d)(2)’s “reasonableness determination” applies to challenges – such as Wood’s – based solely on evidence within the state record, while the “clear and convincing evidence” standard applies when a challenge relies on extrinsic evidence.Opposing certiorari, the State of Alabama did not dispute that the courts of appeals were divided on the question whether the court of appeals had misapplied Sections 2254(d)(2) and 2254(e)(1), but it contended that certiorari was not warranted because Wood had failed to raise this issue below.  In any event, the State argued, Wood’s claim is foreclosed by Miller-El v. Cockrell, which it characterized as holding that both subsections apply to all habeas cases which turn on a state court’s determination of the facts.In oral arguments, steered a waivering counsel toward the issue that the Court had agreed to review: the interaction between subsections (d)(2) and (e)(1) of Section 2254, relating to state court factual findings.  Subsection (d)(2) precludes federal habeas relief unless the state court proceeding “resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding,” while subsection (e)(1) creates a presumption that “a determination of a factual issue made by a state court” is correct unless rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.Wood argued that subsection (d)(2) applies to challenges that involve only the state record, whereas (e)(1) governs challenges based on extrinsic evidence.  Justice Breyer seemed to agree, noting that such an interpretation gives meaning to both subsections and prevents them from being repetitive.  Justice Ginsburg, however, noted that because very few habeas proceedings involve extrinsic evidence, under Wood’s reading subsection (e)(1) would rarely apply. Justice Alito suggested to told the Sate’s Solicitors that all of the subsidiary, individual facts in a state record are presumed correct under (e)(1), but (d)(2) governs whether the state court’s ultimate decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.  Maze agreed that this was essentially his interpretation of the statute.  Justice Breyer seemed to regard this interpretation as a plausible one, but he expressed concern that this scheme would be too complicated for lower courts to apply.  Indeed, he noted, because this interpretation could lead to a whole new jurisprudence on what was a “subsidiary” factual finding, it would be much simpler to just use (d)(2) for the entire inquiry.  Justice Kennedy pointed out that AEDPA is already confusing to lower courts, and that no matter how the Court rules it will be difficult to provide clear guidance using these standards.Ultimately, the entire Court seemed very concerned about articulating a standard that would not further complicate habeas proceedings.  What standard they will ultimately choose, however, was in no way clear.