SCOTUS Opinion: Court Corrects Mischaracterization Of State Court’s Analysis Of Ineffective Counsel Claim

In Dunn v. Reeves, after Reeves was convicted of murder, he argued to the state court that he received ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). However, he did not call his attorneys to testify to rebut the presumption that counsel acted reasonably. The state appellate court denied relief because of the lack of evidence, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari on his appeal over Justice Sotomayor’s dissent. Reeves then took his case to the federal courts through habeas review. The Eleventh Circuit reversed his conviction and remanded for a new trial, holding that the state courts impermissibly applied a per se rule prohibiting relief in all cases where a prisoner fails to question counsel, quoting liberally from Justice Sotomayor’s earlier dissent.

The Court, in a per curiam 6-3 decision, reversed. First, the majority emphasized the heavy deference that state court decisions were entitled to on collateral attack from a federal habeas proceeding. Then, the majority chided the Eleventh Circuit for mischaracterizing the state court’s ruling, finding that no “per se rule” was applied—rather, Reeves simply failed to provide sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption that his counsel did their job. Justice Breyer dissented without opinion. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Kagan, dissented, argued that the state court did apply per se rule that was inconsistent with Strickland.

A link to the opinion is here: