Stewart v. Smith,
536 U.S. 856 (2002)

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No. 01-339. Decided June 28, 2002

Respondent filed a federal habeas petition, claiming, inter alia, ineffective assistance of counsel. He had previously brought that claim in a state petition for postconviction relief pursuant to Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32, but the County Superior Court found it waived under Rule 32.2(a)(3) because he had not raised it in two previous Rule 32 petitions. The Federal District Court concluded that the state court's ruling barred federal habeas relief, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that the state procedural default was not independent of federal law and thus did not bar federal review. This Court granted certiorari and certified to the Arizona Supreme Court a question concerning Rule 32.2(a)(3)'s proper interpretation. The latter court responded that, at the time of respondent's state petition, the question whether an asserted claim was of sufficient constitutional magnitude to require a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver for purposes of the Rule depended not upon the merits of the particular claim but upon the particular right alleged to have been violated.

Held: The District Court properly refused to review respondent's ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim. The Arizona Supreme Court's reply makes clear that Rule 32.2(a)(3) only requires courts to categorize a claim, not to evaluate the claim's merits. When resolution of a state procedural law question depends on a federal constitutional ruling, the state-law prong of the court's holding is not independent of federal law and this Court's direct review jurisdiction is not precluded. Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U. S. 68, 75. Assuming that the same standard governs the scope of a district court's power to grant federal habeas relief, Rule 32.2(a)(3) determinations are independent of federal law because they do not depend upon a constitutional ruling on the merits. Although the state court's decision would not be independent of federal law if it rested primarily on a ruling on the merits, the record here reveals no such ruling.

241 F.3d 1191, reversed and remanded.



At issue in this case is whether, when an Arizona Superior Court denied respondent's successive petition for state postconviction relief because respondent had failed to comply with Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.2(a)(3) (West 2000), the state court's ruling was independent of federal law. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit thought not. We granted certiorari and certified to the Arizona Supreme Court a question concerning the proper interpretation of Rule 32.2(a)(3). We have received a response and now reverse the Ninth Circuit's decision.


Respondent, Robert Douglas Smith, was convicted in Arizona in 1982 of first-degree murder, kidnaping, and sexual assault. He was sentenced to death on the murder count and to consecutive 21-year prison terms on the other counts. After a series of unsuccessful petitions for state postconviction relief, respondent filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U. S. C. §§ 2241 and 2254 in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. The petition alleged, among other things, that respondent's Sixth Amendment right to counsel had been violated because his trial counsel had provided ineffective assistance during the sentencing phase of his trial.

Respondent had previously brought this ineffectiveassistance claim in a 1995 petition for state postconviction relief pursuant to Ariz. Rule Crim. Proc. 32. The Pima County Superior Court denied the claim, finding it waived under Rule 32.2(a)(3) because respondent had failed to raise it in two previous Rule 32 petitions. The state court rejected respondent's contention that his procedural default was excused because his appellate and Rule 32 attorneys suffered from a conflict of interest between their responsibility

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