Wednesday, April 21, 2010

2d Circuit smacks down State Court of Appeals in habeas ruling

Legal malpractice claims are the last refuge of the inmate who wants to get out of jail. Most ineffective assistance claims fail, but some inmates hit the jackpot. Racky Ramchair certainly did.

The case is Ramchair v. Conway, decided on April 2. Ramchair went to jail on a robbery conviction. He then filed a habeas corpus petition challenging the performance of his attorney who handled the appeal in the state courts. This habeas petition was not going to be easy. You have to jump through hoops these days to win a habeas petition. First, you have to show that the state court ruling on appeal was an unreasonable application of settled constitutional law. Second, Ramchair in particular was arguing that the well-respected New York Court of Appeals had unreasonably applied settled constitutional law.

So how did Ramchair win the habeas petition? Ramchair's attorney was present at the arguably suggestive lineup right after Ramchair's arrest. At the criminal trial, the district attorney wanted the jury to think the lineup was fine as proven by the failure of Ramchair's attorney to contemporaneously object to the lineup, at which Ramchair was identified as the perpretator of the crime. As Ramchair's lawyer at trial was the same lawyer who was present at the lineup, this evidence created a real problem. A lawyer cannot testify at the very trial he is litigating, so he asked for a mistrial so that Ramchair could hire another trial lawyer and the lineup attorney could testify at the next trial. The judge denied the mistrial.

The ineffective assistance claim is that Ramchair's lawyer on appeal did not challenge this mistrial denial in the state appeals courts. This was a potentially meritorious claim, so the failure to raise it on appeal was quite problematic. Why was it potentially meritorious? The Second Circuit observes that "the clear implication was that [Ramchair's lawyer] conceded that the lineup was fair."

The legal issue actually raised by Ramchair's appellate counsel was weak. The stronger claim -- challenging the criminal court judge's refusal to grant a mistrial -- was much stronger, but appellate counsel did not raise that issue on appeal. As the Second Circuit (Winter, Calabresi and Sack) says, "appellate counsel's failure to raise the mistrial claim was not a sound strategic decision, but a mistake based on counsel's misunderstanding that the mistrial claim, which trial counsel explicitly made, had not been preserved. We agree ... that this mistake rose to the level of constitutional ineffectiveness, and that the New York Court of Appeals' decision to the contrary was an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent."

If you follow habeas claims in the Second Circuit, you'll find that most of the "bad" state appellate rulings that unreasonably applied settled constitutional law are from the Appellate Division, the mid-level appeals court in New York. In this case, it was the State Court of Appeals that blew it. I have not seen that in quite a while. The Second Circuit has a good relationship with the State Court of Appeals in that the latter sometimes resolves complicated state law issues for the former. But in this case, the Second Circuit makes it clear that, in rejecting Ramchair's ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the State Court of Appeals mistakenly ruled that Ramchair's appellate lawyer filed a comprehensive brief in challenging the conviction. And since appellate counsel testified in connection with the habeas petition that she did not raise that issue out of mistake, and not strategy, the State Court of Appeals got it wrong in finding otherwise.

True, the State and Federal Courts of Appeals have a nice relationship. But the Second Circuit's smackdown in the Ramchair case is strictly business. Nothing personal.

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