Lafler and State Court Analysis That is “Contrary to” Federal Law for Purposes of Federal Habeas Review
Lurking in the background of one of the recent SCOTUS cases about plea bargaining — Lafler v. Cooper — is a bit of language touching on the question of when a state court analysis is “contrary to, or an unreasonable application of” established federal law for purposes of federal habeas review. Lafler arose from a federal habeas petition alleging that the petitioner had received ineffective assistance in plea bargaining, a claim that was rejected in the state court. However, the majority in Lafler says that the way the state court disposed of the claim was sufficiently problematic that the AEDPA did not bar relief:
[T]he Michigan Court of Appeals identified respondent’s ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim but failed to apply Strickland to assess it. Rather than applying Strickland, the state court simply found that respondent’s rejection of the plea was knowing and voluntary. Cooper, 2005 WL 599740, *1, App. to Pet. for Cert. 45a. An inquiry into whether the rejection of a plea is knowing and voluntary, however, is not the correct means by which to address a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. See Hill, 474 U.S., at 57–59, 106 S.Ct. at 370 (applying Strickland to assess a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel arising out of the plea negotiation process). After stating the incorrect standard, moreover, the state court then made an irrelevant observation about counsel’s performance at trial and mischaracterized respondent’s claim as a complaint that his attorney did not obtain a more favorable plea bargain. By failing to apply Strickland to assess the ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim respondent raised, the state court’s adjudication was contrary to clearly established federal law. And in that circumstance the federal courts in this habeas action can determine the principles necessary to grant relief. See Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 948, 127 S.Ct. 2842, 168 L.Ed.2d 662 (2007).
In dissent, Justice Scalia has a field day with this analysis. First, he argues that Lafler establishes “a new rule of law,” such that the principle of the case could not be the basis for relief for the petitioner (since, according to Justice Scalia, the rule was not “clearly established”). Second, he notes:
Since it is ambiguous whether the state court’s holding was based on a lack of prejudice or rather the court’s factual determination that there had been no deficient performance, to provide relief under AEDPA this Court must conclude that both holdings would have been unreasonable applications of clearly established law. See Premo v. Moore, 562 U.S. ––––, ––––, 131 S.Ct. 733, 740–741, 178 L.Ed.2d 649 (2011). The first is impossible of doing, since this Court has never held that a defendant in Cooper’s position can establish Strickland prejudice. The Sixth Circuit thus violated AEDPA in granting habeas relief, and the Court now does the same.