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Name: Nitschke v. Belleque
Case #: 10-36121
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 05/24/2012

A state court finding that a federal claim is procedurally defaulted, which merely categorizes a federal claim without ruling on the merits, rests on independent state grounds and federal review is precluded. Petitioner was convicted in Oregon of manslaughter and other offenses. The trial court found him to be a dangerous offender and thereby increased his sentence under Oregon’s “dangerous offender” law. On appeal defendant raised an Apprendi claim regarding the trial court’s factual finding at sentencing. (Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000) 530 U.S. 466.) The claim was found forfeited by the state appellate court because it was not raised at trial. The federal district court likewise denied defendant’s federal habeas petition, finding the Apprendi claim procedurally defaulted. Affirmed. Under the doctrine of procedural default, a federal court is precluded from hearing the claims of a state defendant in a habeas proceeding when the state court decision rested on an “independent and adequate state ground.” An independent and adequate state ground will be found when the state court declines to address a defendant’s federal claim because the defendant failed to meet a state procedural requirement. When a state court ruling on a state procedural issue depends on an antecedent ruling on the merits of a federal claim, it is interwoven with federal law and not independent. However, when the state court ruling merely categorizes a federal claim without ruling on the merits, it is independent and federal review is precluded. Here, the state court analyzed and categorized Apprendi according to state law standards but did not rule on the merits of defendant’s claim.