SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
Jefferson S. Dunn, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections v.
on petition for writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit
No. 20–1084. Decided July 2, 2021
Justice Sotomayor, with whom Justice Kagan joins, dissenting.
466 U.S. 668
(1984), courts must assess a defendant’s claim that his attorney failed to provide constitutionally effective assistance “in light of all the circumstances.” Id
., at 690. No single type of evidence is a prerequisite to relief. Therefore, as the majority implicitly acknowledges, a per se
rule that a habeas petitioner’s claim fails if his attorney did not testify at an evidentiary hearing is flatly incompatible with Strickland
The Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama applied precisely such a rule in this case. When respondent Matthew Reeves raised several ineffective-assistance-of-counsel (IAC) claims in state postconviction proceedings, the court stated, in no uncertain terms (and underlined for emphasis), that “to overcome the strong presumption of effectiveness, a Rule 32 petitioner must, at his evidentiary hearing, question trial counsel regarding his or her actions and reasoning
, 226 So. 3d 711, 748 (2016) (internal quotation marks omitted). Applying that rule “[i]n this case,” the court held that “Reeves’s failure to call his attorneys to testify is fatal to his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.” Id
., at 749. Reeves then sought habeas relief in federal court. Based on the state court’s clear holding, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit properly determined that the state court’s use of the per se
rule was an unreasonable application of Strickland
. of Corrections
, 836 Fed. Appx. 733, 744 (2020) (per curiam
Through linguistic contortion, the Court today rescues the state court’s decision by construing it not to apply a per se
rule at all. Based on that implausible reading, the Court summarily reverses the Eleventh Circuit’s grant of relief. The lengths to which this Court goes to ensure that Reeves remains on death row are extraordinary. I respectfully dissent.
In 1998, Reeves was convicted of capital murder for a brutal crime he committed when he was 18 years old. By a vote of 10 to 2, a divided jury recommended that Reeves be sentenced to death, and the trial court accepted that recommendation.
During his trial, Reeves was initially represented by two attorneys, Blanchard McLeod and Marvin Wiggins. Reeves’ counsel moved for the appointment of a neuropsychologist, Dr. John Goff, to conduct an intellectual disability evaluation. When the motion was denied, Reeves’ counsel sought rehearing. They explained that they had collected “hundreds of pages of psychological, psychometric and behavioral analysis material relating to [Reeves].” Electronic Case Filing in No. 1:17–cv–00061 (SD Ala.) (ECF), Doc. 23–1, p. 74. That material, McLeod had represented in court, was “exceptionally pertinent” to Reeves’ penalty phase defense. ECF Doc. 23–3, at 96. Counsel stated that retaining “a clinical neuropsychologist” like Dr. Goff was “the only avenue open to the defense to compile this information . . . and present [it] in an orderly and informative fashion to the jury.” ECF Doc. 23–1, at 74–75. The state court granted the request and provided funding to hire Dr. Goff. Id
., at 81. Around the same time, McLeod was replaced by another attorney, Thomas Goggans. 836 Fed. Appx., at 736.
Reeves’ new team, Goggans and Wiggins, failed to follow through on hiring a neuropsychologist. As Dr. Goff later testified, in the more than three months between his appointment and the penalty phase trial, Reeves’ attorneys “just never called.” ECF Doc. 23–24, at 68. They also never hired any other neuropsychologist to review the evidence and evaluate Reeves for intellectual disability. 836 Fed. Appx., at 748. Instead, on the day of the penalty phase trial, counsel contacted Dr. Kathleen Ronan, a clinical psychologist who had previously evaluated Reeves for competence to stand trial and his mental state at the time of the offense. ECF Doc. 23–26, at 82–84. She had never evaluated Reeves for intellectual disability, and she had not spoken with Goggans or Wiggins until “the day that [she] testified.” Id
., at 84.
Dr. Ronan informed Reeves’ counsel that her prior evaluation would not serve their purposes. Ibid
. As she later explained, assessing Reeves for intellectual disability “was not within the scope of [her] evaluation.” Ibid
. Had she been hired to conduct such an assessment, she would have administered a full IQ test and conducted other evaluations designed to diagnose intellectual disability. Id
., at 85–87.
Instead, Dr. Ronan had only administered part of an IQ test and found that Reeves’ verbal IQ “was not in a level that they would call him [intellectually disabled].” ECF Doc. 23–8, at 155; see also ECF Doc. 23–26, at 85. An expert for the State later administered a full IQ test, however, showing that Reeves’ IQ was well within the range for intellectual disability. Reeves
, 226 So. 3d, at 737; ECF Doc. 23–25, at 24; ECF Doc. 23–24, at 26.
Nevertheless, Reeves’ counsel called Dr. Ronan to testify. The only other witnesses counsel called were Reeves’ mother and a police detective. The entire penalty phase trial lasted just one and a half hours. ECF Doc. 23–14, at 154. Reviewing the record, the trial judge found that “[t]he only evidence that [he could] consider in mitigation of this offense . . . is the evidence of [Reeves’] age and [his] youthfulness.” ECF Doc. 23–8, at 212. Concluding that such limited evidence would not outweigh the aggravating circumstances, the court sentenced Reeves to death. Ibid
In 2002, Reeves filed a motion for state postconviction relief under Alabama Rule of Criminal Procedure 32 (known as a Rule 32 petition). Reeves alleged that his trial counsel had been constitutionally ineffective in several ways, including by failing to hire a neuropsychologist to evaluate him for intellectual disability.
The state court held a 2-day evidentiary hearing on Reeves’ claims. Reeves called Dr. Goff to testify. At the request of Reeves’ postconviction counsel, Dr. Goff had reviewed Reeves’ mental health and school records and administered “a battery of tests designed to assess Mr. Reeves’ IQ, cognitive abilities, and adaptive functioning.” 836 Fed. Appx., at 737. Dr. Goff found that Reeves’ IQ scores were 71 and 73,[1
] showing that Reeves “has significantly subaverage intellectual functioning,” and that he “has significant deficits in multiple areas of adaptive functioning.” Ibid
. These deficits manifested before Reeves turned 18 years old. ECF Doc. 23–24, at 25–26, 65–67. Based on his findings, Dr. Goff concluded that Reeves is intellectually disabled. 836 Fed. Appx., at 737. Dr. Goff testified that “had Mr. Reeves’ trial counsel asked him to evaluate Mr. Reeves years earlier for the purpose of testifying at trial, he would have performed similar evaluations and reached the same conclusions.” Ibid
Reeves’ trial counsel did not testify at the Rule 32 hearing. At the beginning of the hearing, the State had declared that it intended to call Goggans and Wiggins to “explain why they did certain things and maybe why they didn’t do certain things.” ECF Doc. 23–24, at 14. But at the conclusion of the hearing, the State “decided not to call trial counsel.” ECF Doc. 23–25, at 86.
The state court denied Reeves’ motion for postconviction relief. On appeal, Reeves argued that the lower court had “erred in ignoring substantial evidence in support of [his IAC claim] on the basis that he did not call counsel to testify.” ECF Doc. 23–29, at 45. In response, the State argued that because “Reeves failed to call either of his trial attorneys to testify concerning their decision to call Dr. Ronan rather than Dr. Goff,” the lower court “properly presumed that they acted reasonably.” Id
., at 199–200.
The Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama agreed with the State, rejecting Reeves’ contention that “testimony from counsel is not necessary to prove any claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.” Reeves
, 226 So. 3d, at 747. That argument, the court reasoned, “fail[ed] to take into account the requirement that courts indulge a strong presumption that counsel acted reasonably, a presumption that must be overcome by evidence
to the contrary.” Ibid
(emphasis in original). The court then specified what that evidence must be: “ ‘[T]o overcome the strong presumption of effectiveness, a Rule 32 petitioner must, at his evidentiary hearing, question trial counsel regarding his or her actions and reasoning
.’ ” Id
., at 748 (emphasis in original; quoting Stallworth
, 171 So. 3d 53, 92 (Ala. Crim. App. 2013)). The court cited over half a dozen cases supporting that per se
rule. See 226 So. 3d, at 748. It then applied the rule to Reeves, explaining that “[i]n this case, Reeves’s failure to call his attorneys to testify is fatal to his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.” Id
., at 749.
Reeves filed a petition for a writ of certiorari seeking review of the state court’s decision, which this Court denied. I dissented, joined by Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kagan. We pointed out that the state court had applied a per se
rule “that counsel must testify in order for a petitioner to succeed on a federal constitutional ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim.” Reeves
, 583 U. S. ___, ___ (2017) (slip op., at 2). Even the State did not defend the constitutionality of such a rule. See ibid
Reeves then filed a federal habeas petition pursuant to
28 U. S. C. §2254. The District Court denied Reeves’ petition and his motion for reconsideration. See 2019 WL 1938805, *11 (SD Ala., May 1, 2019). The Eleventh Circuit reversed in relevant part. It read the state appellate court’s decision to “trea[t] Mr. Reeves’ failure to call his counsel to testify as a per se
bar to relief—despite ample evidence in the record to overcome the presumption of adequate representation.” 836 Fed. Appx., at 744. In so doing, the state court “unreasonably applied Strickland
The Eleventh Circuit accordingly reviewed Reeves’ claim de novo
and found that Reeves had proved ineffective assistance of counsel. Id
., at 747–753.
The Eleventh Circuit was not alone in interpreting the state court’s decision to apply a “categorical rule.” Id
., at 744. Less than a month earlier, the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama (the same court that had issued the decision in question) denied another defendant’s IAC claim. Once again, the court stated its per se
rule: “[T]o overcome the strong presumption of effectiveness, a Rule 32 petitioner must, at his evidentiary hearing, question trial counsel regarding his or her actions and reasoning.” State
., ___ So. 3d ___, ___, 2020 WL 6110694, *7 (Oct. 16, 2020) (internal quotation marks omitted; emphasis deleted). In support, the court cited its prior decision in Reeves
, which it summarized as “holding that [a] Rule 32 petitioner had failed to prove his claims of ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel because he did not call his trial or appellate counsel to testify at the Rule 32 evidentiary hearing.” Id
., at *8. As in Reeves’ case, the court in M
held that “the failure to have trial counsel testify is fatal to M.D.D.’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.” Ibid
The State petitioned this Court to review the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Reeves
. Despite the Alabama court’s plain embrace of a per se
rule, the State accused the Eleventh Circuit of too “readily attributing error to the state court” by interpreting its decision to “purportedly creat[e] and us[e] this per se rule.” Pet. for Cert. i. On that basis, the State asked this Court to reverse summarily the Eleventh Circuit. Id
., at 30.
The sole question presented in this case is whether the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama applied a categorical rule that Reeves’ failure to call his attorneys to testify was fatal to his IAC claim as a matter of law. No one disputes that such a rule would be an “unreasonable application” of Strickland
and its progeny.
28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1); see also ante
, at 1, 10; Pet. for Cert. 1. Under those decisions, no single type of evidence, such as counsel’s testimony, is a prerequisite to relief.[3
] See Roe
, 528 U.S. 470
, 478 (2000) (describing Strickland
’s “circumstance-specific reasonableness inquiry”); Williams
529 U.S. 362
, 391 (2000) (explaining that “the Strickland
test ‘of necessity requires a case-by-case examination of the evidence’ ”).
The Court of Criminal Appeals improperly applied such a per se
rule here. It began by invoking Reeves’ burden “to present evidence” sufficient to overcome the “strong presumption that counsel acted reasonably.” Reeves
, 226 So. 3d, at 751 (emphasis deleted). It then ignored all of the evidence that Reeves’ counsel had acted unreasonably, including Dr. Goff ’s description of the evaluation he would have conducted, Dr. Ronan’s warning that her testimony was no substitute for an actual intellectual disability assessment, and trial counsel’s repeated representations about the necessity of hiring Dr. Goff to conduct such an evaluation.
The court held that none of this evidence mattered because trial counsel did not testify: “[B]ecause Reeves failed to call his counsel to testify, the record is silent as to the reasons trial counsel . . . chose not to hire Dr. Goff or another neuropsychologist.” Ibid
The court treated that fact as “fatal” to Reeves’ claim. Id
., at 749. Because Reeves could not establish the subjective “reasoning behind counsel’s actions, the presumption of effectiveness [was] sufficient to deny relief.” Id
., at 751 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also M
., ___ So. 3d, at ___, 2020 WL 6110694, *8 (explaining that the court denied Reeves relief “because he did not call his trial . . . counsel to testify”).[4
In reviewing habeas petitions, “federal judges must begin with the ‘presumption that state courts know and follow the law.’ ” Ante
, at 8 (quoting Woodford
537 U.S. 19
, 24 (2002) (per curiam
)). But when state courts contravene this Court’s precedents, federal courts cannot turn a blind eye. Here, it is hard to see how the state court could have been any clearer in applying a per se
rule that undisputedly violates Strickland
The Court declares that it is “clear from context that the Alabama court did not apply a blanket rule, but rather determined that the facts of this case did not merit relief.” Ante
, at 10. The problem is that the “facts of this case” make no appearance in the state court’s discussion. See Reeves
, 226 So. 3d, at 749–751. This Court thus searches for some sign (any sign) that the state court implicitly assessed the facts of the case.
The Court first points to two statements at the beginning of the state court’s analysis in which it “said that it would consider ‘all the circumstances’ of the case.” Ante
, at 10–11. But after perfunctorily citing the Strickland
standard, the state court never actually followed through on its obligation to consider the evidence. Its analysis began and ended with counsel’s failure to testify. See Reeves
, 226 So. 3d, at 750–751. State courts cannot insulate their decisions from scrutiny by quoting the proper standard and then ignoring it.
In a similar vein, this Court seizes upon the state court’s quotation from an earlier case stating that trial “ ‘counsel should ordinarily
be afforded an opportunity to explain his actions before being denounced as ineffective.’ ” Ante
, at 11. This, the Court claims, “belie[s] a categorical approach.” Ante
, at 10.
The state court, however, expressly overrode that formulation of the rule, stating that the court “[s]ubsequently” held that IAC petitioners “ ‘must
’ ” question trial counsel. Reeves
, 226 So. 3d, at 747–748 (emphasis in original). It relied on that rule to reject Reeves’ claim. Id
., at 748–749.
The Court also cites the length of the state court’s opinion as purported proof that the court conducted a fact-specific inquiry. Ante
, at 11. But what matters is the state court’s reasoning, not the length of its opinion. The state court did not spend “almost nine pages” conducting a detailed “case-specific” analysis. Ibid
. The vast majority of the state court’s discussion instead consists of a list of Reeves’ IAC allegations and lengthy block quotes of general legal standards. See Reeves
, 226 So. 3d, at 744–750. When the court finally turned to the facts of this case, it explicitly barred relief only “because Reeves failed to call his counsel to testify.” Id
., at 751.
Finally, the Court latches on to three words, “[i]n this case,” insisting that they prove that the state court merely concluded that trial counsel’s testimony was critical to Reeves’ IAC claim “[i]n this case.” Ante
, at 11 (quoting 226 So. 3d, at 749; emphasis deleted).
But in using the phrase “[i]n this case,” the state court was not addressing the evidentiary record. It was analogizing Reeves’ case to the many cases it had just cited for the proposition that “ ‘a Rule 32 petitioner must, at his evidentiary hearing, question trial counsel regarding his or her actions and reasoning.
’ ” Id
., at 748–749 (emphasis in original). It then concluded that “Reeves’s failure to call his attorneys to testify” in this case was similarly “fatal to his claims.” Id
., at 749. If the state court had meant to weigh the evidence in the record, it would have. It did not. This Court is putting words in the state court’s mouth that the state court never uttered, and which are flatly inconsistent with what the state court did say.
Finding no relevant factual analysis in the state court’s decision, this Court attempts its own, speculating as to what Reeves’ counsel might have said had they been called to testify. See ante
, at 8–10. For instance, the Court imagines that “counsel may have uncovered additional evidence confirming their concerns about an intellectual-disability strategy.” Ante
, at 9.[5
] The Court also insinuates that Reeves may have strategically declined to call his trial counsel to avoid harmful testimony. Ante
, at 10.
But if counsel’s testimony would have been damaging to Reeves’ claim, one would have expected the State to call counsel to testify. Yet the State expressly declined to do so, despite having counsel available to testify. See ECF Doc. 23–25, at 85–86.
The Court’s eagerness to invent scenarios harmful to Reeves’ claim stems from its apparent belief that “the Alabama court was entitled to reject Reeves’ claim if trial counsel had any ‘possible reaso[n] . . . for proceeding as they did.’ ” Ante
, at 10 (quoting Cullen
563 U.S. 170
, 196 (2011)). That view has no basis in this Court’s precedent. Cullen
did not hold that an IAC claim fails if a court can imagine any possible reason for counsel’s actions. No claim could ever survive such a standard. One can always imagine some unsubstantiated reason for what trial counsel did. Cullen
instead stated that, to assess whether counsel’s conduct was reasonable, courts must “entertain the range of possible reasons” for counsel’s actions in light of the events and evidence actually established in the record. Id.
, at 196 (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court’s speculations about what may have occurred after Dr. Goff ’s appointment are pure conjecture.
In any case, the Court’s guesswork is beside the point because it was not the basis for the state court’s decision. When a state court gives a reasoned explanation for its decision, federal habeas courts must review that decision on its own terms. See Wilson
, 584 U. S. ___, ___ (2018) (slip op., at 2) (“In that case, a federal habeas court simply reviews the specific reasons given by the state court and defers to those reasons if they are reasonable”). Here, the state court relied solely on the mere fact that Reeves’ counsel did not testify. That is the only reason subject to our review, and it plainly contravenes Strickland
Even as the Court attempts to save the state court’s decision, it erroneously embraces the state court’s flawed assumption that IAC claims require direct evidence of the subjective “ ‘reasoning behind counsel’s actions.’ ” See ante
, at 11. “Strickland
, however, calls for an inquiry into the objective reasonableness of counsel’s performance, not counsel’s subjective state of mind.” Harrington
562 U.S. 86
, 110 (2011). “A convicted defendant making a claim of ineffective assistance must identify the acts or omissions of counsel that are alleged not to have been the result of reasonable professional judgment. The court must then determine whether, in light of all the circumstances, the identified acts or omissions were outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance.” Strickland
466 U. S., at 690. This inquiry must be conducted “[e]ven assuming” that counsel acted “for strategic reasons,” Wiggins
539 U.S. 510
, 527 (2003), and even if counsel does not testify. Cf. Buck
, 580 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 17) (“No competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client”). “ ‘In any case presenting an ineffectiveness claim, the performance inquiry must be whether counsel’s assistance was reasonable considering all the circumstances.’ ” Hinton
571 U.S. 263
, 273 (2014) (per curiam
). This Court simply cannot escape the fact that the state court failed to conduct the necessary inquiry.
* * *
Today’s decision continues a troubling trend in which this Court strains to reverse summarily any grants of relief to those facing execution. See, e
., United States
, 592 U. S. ___ (2021) (emergency vacatur of stay and reversal); Shinn
, 592 U. S. ___ (2020) (per curiam
) (summary vacatur); Dunn
, 586 U. S. ___ (2019) (emergency vacatur of stay). This Court has shown no such interest in cases in which defendants seek relief based on compelling showings that their constitutional rights were violated. See, e
, 593 U. S. ___ (2021) (denying certiorari); Whatley
, 593 U. S. ___ (2021) (same); Bernard
v. United States
, 592 U. S. ___ (2020) (same). In Reeves’ case, this Court stops the lower court from granting Reeves’ petition by adopting an utterly implausible reading of the state court’s decision. In essence, the Court turns “deference,” ante
, at 7, into a rule that federal habeas relief is never available to those facing execution. I respectfully dissent.