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Burt v. Titlow

November 5, 2013

SHERRY L. BURT, WARDEN, PETITIONER
v.
VONLEE NICOLE TITLOW



ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT Court Below: 680 F.3d 577

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

OCTOBER TERM, 2013

Argued October 8, 2013

Respondent Titlow and Billie Rogers were arrested for the murder of Billie's husband. After explaining to respondent that the State's evidence could support a conviction for first-degree murder, respondent's attorney negotiated a manslaughter plea in exchange for an agreement to testify against Billie. Three days before Billie's trial, respondent retained a new attorney, Frederick Toca, who demanded an even lower sentence in exchange for the guilty plea and testimony. The prosecutor rejected the proposal, and respondent withdrew the original plea. Without that testimony, Billie was acquitted. Respondent was subsequently convicted of second-degree murder. On direct appeal, respondent argued that Toca provided ineffective assistance by advising withdrawal of the plea without taking time to learn the strength of the State's evidence. The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the claim, concluding that Toca's actions were reasonable in light of his client's protestations of innocence. On federal habeas review, the District Court applied the deferential standard of review set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), concluded that the Michigan Court of Appeals' ruling was reasonable on the law and facts, and denied relief. The Sixth Circuit reversed. It found the factual predicate for the state court's decision-that the plea withdrawal was based on respondent's assertion of innocence-an unreasonable interpretation of the factual record, given Toca's explanation at the withdrawal hearing that the decision to withdraw was made because the State's original plea offer was higher than the sentencing range provided by the Michigan guidelines. It also found no evidence in the record that Toca adequately advised respondent of the consequences of withdrawal.

Held: The Sixth Circuit failed to apply the "doubly deferential" standard of review recognized by the Court's case law when it refused to credit the state court's reasonable factual finding and assumed that counsel was ineffective where the record was silent. Pp. 4--11.

(a) AEDPA recognizes the federalism principle that state courts are adequate forums for the vindication of federal statutory and constitutional rights. It erects a formidable barrier to federal habeas relief for prisoners whose claims have been adjudicated in state court, requiring them to "show that the state court's ruling . . . was so lacking in justification that there was an error . . . beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U. S. ___, ___. Pp. 4--6.

(b) Here, the record readily supports the Michigan Court of Appeals' factual finding that Toca advised withdrawal of the guilty plea only after respondent's proclamation of innocence. The facts that respondent passed a polygraph test denying being in the room when Billie's husband was killed, discussed the case with a jailer who advised against pleading guilty if respondent was indeed innocent, and hired Toca just three days before Billie's trial at which respondent had agreed to self-incriminate, strongly suggest that respondent had second thoughts about confessing in open court and proclaimed innocence to Toca. The only evidence cited by the Sixth Circuit for its contrary conclusion was that Toca's sole explanation at the withdrawal hearing focused on the fact that the State's plea offer was substantially higher than that provided by the Michigan guidelines. The Michigan Court of Appeals was well aware of Toca's representations to the trial court and correctly found nothing inconsistent about a defendant's asserting innocence on the one hand and refusing to plead guilty to manslaughter accompanied by higher-than-normal punishment on the other. Accepting as true the Michigan Court of Appeals' factual determination that respondent proclaimed innocence to Toca, the Sixth Circuit's Strickland analysis cannot be sustained. More troubling is that court's conclusion that Toca was ineffective because the record contained no evidence that he gave constitutionally adequate advice on whether to withdraw the plea. The Sixth Circuit turned on its head the principle that counsel should be "strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment," Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668, 690, with the burden to show otherwise resting squarely on the defendant, id., at 687. The single fact that Toca failed to retrieve respondent's file from former counsel before withdrawing the guilty plea cannot overcome Strickland's strong presumption of effectiveness. In any event, respondent admitted in open court that former counsel had explained the State's evidence and that it would support a first-degree murder conviction. Toca was justified in relying on this admission to conclude that respondent understood the strength of the prosecution's case. Toca's conduct in this litigation was far from exemplary, but a lawyer's ethical violations do not make the lawyer per se ineffective, and Toca's questionable conduct was irrelevant to the narrow issue before the Sixth Circuit. Pp. 6--11.

680 F. 3d 577, reversed.

ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J,. filed a concurring opinion. GINSBURG, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Alito

571 U. S. ____ (2013)

When a state prisoner asks a federal court to set aside a sentence due to ineffective assistance of counsel during plea bargaining, our cases require that the federal court use a " 'doubly deferential' " standard of review that gives both the state court and the defense attorney the benefit of the doubt. Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 17). In this case, the Sixth Circuit failed to apply that doubly deferential standard by refusing to credit a state court's reasonable factual finding and by assuming that counsel was ineffective where the record was silent. Because the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 110 Stat. 1214, and Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668 (1984), do not permit federal judges to so casually second-guess the decisions of their state-court colleagues or defense attorneys, the Sixth Circuit's decision must be reversed.

I.

Respondent Titlow and Billie Rogers, respondent's aunt, murdered Billie's husband Don by pouring vodka down his throat and smothering him with a pillow. With help from attorney Richard Lustig, respondent reached an agreement with state prosecutors to testify against Billie, plead guilty to manslaughter, and receive a 7- to 15-year sentence. As confirmed at a plea hearing, Lustig reviewed the State's evidence with respondent "over a long period of time," and respondent understood that that ...


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