Smith v. Robbins
Annotate this Case
528 U.S. 259 (2000)
OCTOBER TERM, 1999
SMITH, WARDEN v. ROBBINS
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
No. 98-1037. Argued October 5, 1999-Decided January 19,2000
An attorney appointed to represent an indigent defendant on appeal may conclude that an appeal would be frivolous and request that the appellate court allow him to withdraw or that the court dispose of the case without the filing of merits briefs. In Anders v. California, 386 U. S. 738, this Court found that, in order to protect a defendant's constitutional right to appellate counsel, courts must safeguard against the risk of granting such requests where an appeal is not actually frivolous; found California's procedure for evaluating such requests inadequate; and set forth an acceptable procedure. California adopted a new procedure in People v. Wende, 25 Cal. 3d 436, 600 P. 2d 1071. Unlike under the Anders procedure, counsel under Wende neither explicitly states that his review has led him to conclude that an appeal would be frivolous nor requests to withdraw; instead he is silent on the merits of the case and offers to brief issues at the court's direction. A California statecourt jury convicted respondent Robbins of second-degree murder and grand theft. His appointed counsel on appeal concluded that appeal would be frivolous and filed with the State Court of Appeal a brief that complied with the Wende procedure. Agreeing with counsel's assessment, the Court of Appeal affirmed. The California Supreme Court denied review. After exhausting his state postconviction remedies, Robbins sought federal habeas relief, arguing, inter alia, that he had been denied effective assistance of appellate counsel because his counsel's Wende brief did not comply with the Anders requirement that the brief refer "to anything in the record that might arguably support the appeal," 386 U. S., at 744. The District Court agreed, concluding that there were at least two issues that might arguably have supported Robbins' appeal and finding that his counsel's failure to include them in his brief deviated from the Anders procedure and thus amounted to deficient performance by counsel. Rather than requiring Robbins to prove prejudice from this deficiency, the court applied a presumption of prejudice. The Ninth Circuit agreed, concluding that Anders, together with Douglas v. California, 372 U. S. 353-which held that States must provide appointed counsel to indigent criminal defendants on appeal-set forth the exclusive procedure by which appointed counsel's performance could be constitutional, and that counsel's brief failed to comply with
that procedure. The court, however, remanded the case for the District Court to consider other trial errors raised by Robbins.
1. The Anders procedure is only one method of satisfying the Constitution's requirements for indigent criminal appeals; the States are free to adopt different procedures, so long as those procedures adequately safeguard a defendant's right to appellate counsel. Pp. 269-276.
(a) In finding that the California procedure at issue in Anderswhich permitted appellate counsel to withdraw upon filing a conclusory letter stating that the appeal had "no merit" and permitted the appellate court to affirm the conviction upon reaching the same conclusion following a review of the record-did not comport with fair procedure and lacked the equality that the Fourteenth Amendment requires, this Court placed the case within a line of precedent beginning with Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U. S. 12, and continuing with Douglas v. California, 372 U. S. 353, that imposed constitutional constraints on those States choosing to create appellate review. Comparing the California procedure to other procedures that this Court had found invalid and to statutory requirements in the federal courts governing appeals by indigents with appointed counsel, the Court concluded that the finding that the appeal had "no merit" was inadequate because it did not mean that the appeal was so lacking in prospects as to be frivolous. The Court, in a final, separate section, set out what would be an acceptable procedure for treating frivolous appeals. Pp. 269-272.
(b) The Ninth Circuit erred in finding that Anders' final section, though unnecessary to the holding in that case, was obligatory upon the States. This Court has never so held; its precedents suggest otherwise; and the Ninth Circuit's view runs contrary to this Court's established practice. In McCoy v. Court of Appeals of Wis., Dist. 1, 486 U. S. 429, this Court rejected a challenge to Wisconsin's variation on the Anders procedure, even though that variation, in at least one respect, provided less effective advocacy for an indigent. In Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U. S. 551, the Court explained that the Anders procedure is not an independent constitutional command, but rather a prophylactic framework; it did not say that this was the only framework that could adequately vindicate the right to appellate counsel announced in Douglas. Similarly, in Penson v. Ohio, 488 U. S. 75, the Court described Anders as simply erecting safeguards. Finally, any view of the procedure described in Anders' last section that converted it from a suggestion into a straitjacket would contravene this Court's established practice of allowing the States wide discretion, subject to the minimum require-
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