Sixth Circuit Grants Habeas Relief after Counsel Failed to Rise Change in Law Appeal

While defense lawyers aren’t usually required to predict a change in the law that may be coming down that affects their case, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held on August 20, 2020, that when that change in law is “clearly foreshadowed” that any competent lawyer would’ve seen it coming, counsel is constitutionally ineffective to allow habeas relief. Chase v. MaCauley, 19-1202 (6th Cir. Aug. 20, 2020).

Ineffective Assistance Motion Leads to Supreme Court Battle

The case came up through the Michigan State courts, where a defendant raised an ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claim because his lawyer failed to pursue an issue that was gaining momentum in the state’s supreme court that would have impacted his case. The defendant had been sentenced under a sentencing scheme where the sentencing judge couldn’t depart from the guideline range absent “a substantial and compelling reason,” under Mich. Comp. Laws s. 769.34(3).

Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Alleyne v. U.S., 570 U.S. 99 (2013), that sentencing schemes requiring a mandatory minimum sentence based on judge-found facts violates the Constitution. This ruling eventually led the Michigan Supreme Court to declare Michigan’s mandatory sentencing scheme under s. 769.34(3) unconstitutional. People v. Lockridge, 870 N.W.2d 502 (Mich. 2015). 

Filing for Habeas Relief

After the defendant’s postconviction remedies were all denied, he turned to the federal courts, filing a habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. s. 2254. The federal district court denied his petition, finding that the change in law “would not have been obvious” to his lawyer. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit disagreed. 

“It is hard to see how the decision to omit the Alleyne claim in favor of raising an obviously weaker claim [on direct appeal] was a reasonable decision,” the Court said. It pointed out that during the petitioner’s state appeal, another case had divided the state court of appeals. The dissenters in that case, the Court said, “clearly and forcefully detailed why Alleyne rendered Michigan’s sentencing scheme unconstitutional.” Counsel would’ve been aware of this controversial case, the Court said.

Working towards a solution

The Court granted habeas relief, noting that the petitioners didn’t need to show he would’ve gotten a lesser sentence, but only a “reasonable probability” he would’ve received a new sentencing proceeding had his counsel raised the issue on appeal.

The Court also recognized it had jurisdiction to grant habeas relief because the state court decisions were all “contrary to clearly established federal law,” an obstacle the AEDPA put in place limiting the reach of federal courts in habeas proceedings. The state court decisions denying relief were contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s IAC standard set in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), which was “clearly established federal law.

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