January 19, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Premo v. Moore

On January 19, 2011, the Supreme Court decided Premo v. Moore, No. 09–658, applying 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) and holding that the state court was not unreasonable either in accepting trial counsel's explanation as to why he failed to move to suppress defendant's confession or in finding that defendant was not prejudiced by his counsel's actions.

The case arose after Randy Moore pled no contest to felony murder in exchange for the minimum sentence for that offense. He later sought post-conviction relief on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. Specifically, Moore complained that his lawyer did not move to suppress his conviction before advising him to accept the plea offer.

In response, Moore's trial counsel stated that he did not make the motion because Moore had confessed to two other individuals and that he advised Moore to plea-bargain to avoid a charge of aggravated murder. These facts led the state to conclude that Moore had not established ineffective assistance under Strickland v. Washington. Moore sought federal habeas relief. The district court denied the petition, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the state court's conclusion was an unreasonable application of clearly established law.

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), a defendant may not re-litigate claims adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state court decision involved an "unreasonable application" of "clearly established Federal law." The Court held that it was not unreasonable for the state court to accept trial counsel's explanation that a motion to suppress would have been futile. The Court held that plea bargains involve complex negotiations infused with uncertainty and that substantial deference must thus be accorded to counsel's judgment. The Court also found it reasonable for the state court to conclude that Moore was not prejudiced by his counsel's actions.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, Breyer, Alito, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Ginsburg filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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