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Name: Woods v. Etherton
Case #: 15-723
Court: US Supreme Court
District USSup
Opinion Date: 04/04/2016

Federal habeas relief inappropriate where fairminded jurists could disagree concerning whether appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise claim regarding trial counsel’s failure to object to hearsay on confrontation grounds. During Etherton’s drug trafficking trial, three officers testified about the content of an anonymous tip that ultimately led to Etherton’s arrest. After his conviction and direct appeal, Etherton filed a state habeas petition arguing that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to object to the tip on confrontation grounds and that his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise that issue on appeal. After the state court denied relief, Etherton filed a federal habeas petition, which the district court denied. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. Held: Reversed in a per curiam opinion. Under AEDPA, federal habeas relief is only available if the state court’s decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” (28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).) A state court’s determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as fairminded jurists could disagree on the correctness of the state court’s decision. (Harrington v. Richter (2011) 562 U.S. 86, 101.) Fairminded judges could disagree about whether trial counsel’s failure to object to the tip was the result of incompetence. The information in the tip was uncontested (that two white males were transporting cocaine in a white Audi from Detroit to Grand Rapids) and it was consistent with Etherton’s defense (that the drugs found inside the car belonged to the other occupant in the car). A fairminded jurist could similarly conclude that appellate counsel was not incompetent in drawing the same conclusion. The Sixth Circuit erred by concluding otherwise.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: