A “Collateral” Consequence: How Harrington v. Richter Ironically Undermines Deference to State Courts

This article was written by guest author Ruth A. Moyer, a 2008 cum laude graduate of Temple Law School. She currently practices criminal defense law in Philadelphia. Additionally, she has written an article, “Why and How a Lower Federal Court’s Decision that a Search or Seizure Violated the Fourth Amendment Should Be Binding in a State Prosecution: Using ‘Good Sense’ and Suppressing Unnecessary Formalism,” which will appear in Vermont Law Review.

The January 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Harrington v. Richter[i] ostensibly reaffirms the federalist principle that federal habeas courts should defer to state court adjudications of federal constitutional claims. As a more transcendent matter, however, Richter may ironically weaken an important justification for such deference.

Pursuant to the federal habeas corpus writ, 28 U.S.C. § 2254,[ii] a state prisoner may challenge in federal court the legality under the U.S. Constitution of his state conviction. Such a petition “shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court proceedings.” Yet, as an important exception to this “adjudication on the merits” rule, a federal court may grant the petition where the state court adjudication “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established” federal law.[iii]

Richter held that a federal court’s determination of whether a state court reached an “unreasonable” legal conclusion, so as to warrant federal habeas relief, should be unaffected by the summary nature of the state court disposition; thus, state courts adjudicating a prisoner’s federal constitutional claim need not explain their reasoning in an opinion. Accordingly, a federal court should presume that the state court “adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication…to the contrary.” In part, Richter reasoned that a “statement of reasons could undercut state practices designed to preserve the integrity of the case-law tradition…. [S]ummary dispositions…can enable a state judiciary to concentrate its resources on the cases where opinions are most needed.”

Importantly, however, Richter failed to accord any appreciable consideration to other values that have historically been integral to establishing the proper ambit of the “Great Writ.” Permitting state courts to summarily dispose of federal claims does little to encourage state courts to articulate federal constitutional law. Consequently, Richter potentially eviscerates one of the core federalist justifications for a limited federal habeas power.

Proponents of limits on the scope and availability of the federal habeas writ often posit that the lower federal courts are no more capable of effectively resolving federal constitutional issues that arise in state prosecutions than are state courts.[iv] To a considerable extent, a restrictive view of federal habeas relief is inherently premised on the assumption that state courts should have the opportunity to articulate and interpret federal constitutional jurisprudence relevant to criminal prosecutions.[v] Federal habeas review “facilitates a conversation between state and federal courts that results in the cooperative interpretation of federal law…. The [interaction between] two courts of concurrent jurisdiction result[s] in a dialectical federalism that respects state autonomy while at the same time encouraging the uniform adjudication of federal law.”[vi]

Thus, many practical limitations on federal habeas review are implicitly yet effectually constructed so as to provide state courts with this valuable opportunity to articulate federal constitutional law. To illustrate, the procedural default rule requires that where a state court rejects a federal constitutional claim on the “adequate and independent” state ground that the claim is defaulted under a state procedural rule, a federal habeas court generally may not review the claim. The “essence of the procedural default doctrine is that state court procedural rules should be respected…because state courts are competent forums in which to present federal claims.”[vii] Likewise, the exhaustion doctrine, which requires that federal habeas petitioners exhaust state remedies for their federal claims prior to federal habeas review, “is designed to give state courts a full and fair opportunity to resolve federal constitutional claims before those claims are presented to the federal courts….”[viii]  Similarly, a federal court may not grant habeas relief merely because it concludes “in its independent judgment” that a state court applied clearly established federal law incorrectly. Instead, § 2254 imposes a “highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings” and requires that federal habeas courts accord state court decisions “the benefit of the doubt.”[ix]

Unlike these structural aspects of federal habeas review, “summary dispositions” fail to promote meaningful state court participation in interpreting and articulating federal constitutional law. As a result, Richter may marginalize the “cooperative” dialogue concerning fundamental rights that federal habeas review enables – if not compels – between the federal and state judiciaries. To that extent, Richter fails to acknowledge that the perceived ability of state courts to capably and substantively articulate federal constitutional law has often served as a compelling justification for a limited federal habeas power.

In short, although Richter outwardly maintains state judicial independence, it may substantially frustrate the “dialectical federalism” integral to the proper adjudication of federal constitutional claims. In failing to encourage state courts to meaningfully participate in this “dialectical federalism,” Richter ultimately has the potential to devitalize a powerful rationale for such state judicial independence.

[i] 131 S.Ct. 770 (2011).

[ii] Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”).

[iii]  28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).

[iv] In narrowing the federal habeas power, the Supreme Court has declared that state courts are “equally trustworthy in deciding constitutional claims.” Erwin Chemerinsky, Parity Reconsidered: Defining a Role for the Federal Judiciary, 36 UCLA L. Rev. 233, 235 (1988).

[v] See, e.g., Brian M. Hoffstadt, The Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Habeas, 78 S. Cal. L. Rev. 1125, 1127-28 (2005).

[vi] R. Stephen Painter, Jr., Note, O’Sullivan v. Boerckel and the Default of State Prisoners’ Federal Claims: Comity or Tragedy?, 78 N.C. L. Rev. 1604. 1642-43 (2000).

[vii] Tung Yin, A Better Mousetrap: Procedural Default as A Retroactivity Alternative to Teague v. Lane and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 25 Am. J. Crim. L. 203, 247 (1998).

[viii] O’Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845 (1999).

[ix] Renico v. Lett, 130 S.Ct. 1855, 1862 (2010).