Supreme Court Action: Habeas Corpus and Ineffetive Assistance of Counsel

The Court issued one opinion yesterday.  The case is Burt v. Titlow  (12-14) and it concerns the effective assistance of counsel as raised in a habeas corpus proceeding.  Vonlee Titlow was convicted of first degree murder in Michigan.  The record indicates that she poured Vodka down the throat of her Aunt’s husband after which her Aunt smothered the victim.  Titlow’s first attorney arranged a plea deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to manslaughter in return for testifying against her Aunt.  Three days before the Aunt’s trial, Titlow retained a different lawyer who tried to alter the terms of the deal for an even lower sentence.  The prosecution refused.  Titlow had maintained her innocence and decided to go to trial.  She was convicted of second degree murder and given a sentence of 20-40 years.

The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld Titlow’s conviction and denied a claim on ineffective assistance of counsel for her second lawyer.  The claim was that the second attorney advised withdrawing the guilty pleas while not spending enough time learning the details of the case.  The appellate court held that the attorney’s actions were reasonable given Titlow’s protestations of innocence.  The record also shows that Titlow’s prior attorney had discussed the evidence against her in detail and explained that it could support a conviction for first degree murder.

The federal district judge denied habeas relief on deference to the reasonableness of the Michigan Court of Appeals’ decision.  The Sixth Circuit reversed.  It noted that the explanation for withdrawal provided by the second attorney at the hearing on the plea was that the jail time offered was higher than the Michigan guidelines.  As such, the Appellate Court’s rationale was unreasonable.     

The Supreme Court reversed.  It held that the Sixth Circuit unreasonably substituted its judgment for that of the state courts.  The record supports the factual finding that the plea was withdrawn after Titlow proclaimed innocence.  There was no evidence in the record of the advice the second lawyer gave to Titlow.  The standard presumes competency.  Titlow did not overcome that presumption.

There were some questions of ethics, such as the attorney agreeing to represent Titlow in exchange partially for publication rights.  The Court said of that:

He may well have violated the rules of professional conduct by accepting respondent’s publication rights as partial payment for his services, and he waited weeks before consulting respondent’s first lawyer about the case. But the Sixth Amendment does not guarantee the right to perfect counsel; it promises only the right to effective assistance, and we have held that a lawyer’s violation of ethical norms does not make the lawyer per se ineffective.

That statement reminds me of another opinion where the Court stated: ‘A defendant is entitled to a fair trial but not a perfect one.’ Lutwak v. United States, 344 U.S. 604, 619.  Take it from the Supreme Court, perfection isn’t everything.  In fact, it may not be anything.

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court and was essentially joined by all Justices except Justice Ginsburg who wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment.  Justice Sotomayor wrote a separate concurring opinion but otherwised joined the Court in full.


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