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SCOTUS Adds Extra Obstacle to Federal Habeas Relief for State Prisoners, Ruling Both Brecht and the AEDPA Must Be Satisfied

by Dale Chappell

Citing the need to respect the finality of state convictions, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) held on April 21, 2022, that a constitutional trial error that’s found to be “substantial and injurious” under Brecht on the verdict must also clear the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty’s (“AEDPA”) bar on federal habeas relief.

Ervine Davenport was convicted by a Michigan jury of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. On appeal, he argued that being in shackles in front of the jury was a constitutional violation, and the court of appeals agreed. But the court found, after a hearing in the trial court, that the jurors weren’t affected by seeing him shackles and that the evidence overwhelmingly established his guilt.

Davenport then filed for habeas corpus relief in federal court, under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, raising the same claim he lost on appeal. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan found that his claim was barred by the AEDPA because the state court ruled on the merits of his claim and no exception to the AEDPA existed. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and held that the error itself was enough to excuse the AEDPA bar, but SCOTUS agreed with the District Court and reversed the Sixth Circuit’s decision.

Being Shackled in Front of the Jury Was a Constitutional Violation

No one in this case disagreed that Davenport being shackled in front of the jury was a constitutional violation. In Deck v. Missouri, 544 U.S. 622 (2005), SCOTUS held that, absent a “special need,” a defendant shackled before a jury violates the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Michigan Supreme Court agreed that an error occurred and remanded to the trial court for a hearing, where the jurors testified that they were not affected by seeing Davenport in shackles. The trial court accepted this and also found that the evidence at trial “overwhelmingly established defendant’s guilt.” Those factors combined led the court to conclude on direct appeal that the error was harmless.

The Standard of Harmless Error
in Federal Habeas Corpus

However, the harmless-error standard is a higher bar in federal habeas corpus than for direct appeal. In Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), SCOTUS modified its harmless-error standard established in Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967), for direct appeal to fit within the confines of federal habeas corpus.

The standard created in Chapman requires the prosecution to prove that an error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt for that error to be overlooked by a Court of Appeals. But in Brecht, the Court flipped this burden to the petitioner in a federal habeas case, requiring a showing by the petitioner that the error had a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.”

This high bar is needed, the Court said, because federal habeas is “different” from a direct appeal. Non-structural trial errors should not routinely overturn state-court convictions, the Court said, because the “federal courts are not forums in which to relitigate state trials.” The Court reasoned that federal habeas “has historically been regarded as an extreme remedy, a bulwark against convictions that violate fundamental fairness.”

In Davenport’s case, all the courts agreed, and SCOTUS assumed, that a Brecht error occurred with his shackling before the jury. But they didn’t agree on whether the AEDPA also applied.

The AEDPA’s Bar on Federal Habeas Relief for State Prisoners

Because the state court ruled on the merits of Davenport’s claim, the federal District Court was barred from granting habeas relief unless one of two exceptions existed: (1) the state court’s decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by [SCOTUS],” or (2) the decision was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.” § 2254(d).

The District Court found that the state court properly identified and applied SCOTUS cases to Davenport’s claim, thereby barring federal habeas relief. But on appeal, the Sixth Circuit found that because the standard for establishing a constitutional trial error under Brecht is a higher bar than the “lower” bar imposed by the AEDPA, the higher bar “subsumed” the lower bar.

The AEDPA’s bar limiting federal habeas relief for state prisoners was enacted by lawmakers three years before Brecht, so SCOTUS didn’t have the guidance of the AEDPA in deciding how harmless error would coexist with the AEDPA. That’s the reason SCOTUS agreed to hear the warden’s appeal in Davenport’s case.

The AEDPA Applies Even With a Substantial and Injurious Constitutional Error

The question before SCOTUS in Davenport’s case was whether the AEDPA still applies, despite a finding that a Brecht “substantial and injurious” error of constitutional magnitude occurred at trial. The Court provided the following three reasons why the AEDPA must still apply even with a Brecht error.

1. The tests are different under the AEDPA and Brecht:

Under the AEDPA, § 2254(d)(1) requires that a federal habeas petitioner prove the state court’s decision was “unreasonable.” SCOTUS has defined this as ‘no fairminded jurist could reach the state court’s conclusion under this Court’s precedents.” And if the facts are in dispute, § 2254(d)(2) similarly requires a showing that “reasonable minds reviewing the record might disagree about the finding in question” by the state court.

The Court stressed that this broad focus on not just the habeas court but also including other judges in the analysis is on purpose to make habeas relief harder for state prisoners. “If AEDPA makes winning habeas relief more difficult, it is because Congress adopted the law to do just that.”

Under Brecht, however, the test is whether the federal habeas court itself would harbor “grave doubt” about whether the trial error affected the verdict. “Where AEDPA asks whether every fairminded jurist would agree that an error was prejudicial, Brecht asks only whether a federal habeas court itself harbors grave doubt about the petitioner’s verdict,” the Court explained.

2. Each test requires the analysis of different legal sources:

The AEDPA requires that a federal habeas court looks only to “clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” This, the Court said, means the actual holding of those Supreme Court decisions. And it’s the Supreme Court’s holdings in effect at the time of the state-court decision that matter, the Court reminded, and not any later decisions that may have been more favorable to the petitioner.

But under the Brecht test, the federal habeas court may use any court case, even those of lower courts, when weighing if a substantial and injurious error was made. “A petitioner might be able to prevail under Brecht thanks to favorable circuit case law but still lose under the AEDPA because no comparable holding exists in the Court’s precedents,” the Court said in distinguishing the AEDPA from Brecht.

3. Despite its prior cases saying so, Brecht doesn’t subsume the AEDPA:

The Court acknowledged that at least two of its previous decisions said that if the high bar for Brecht is satisfied, the AEDPA’s lower bar is “subsumed” by the Brecht test. See Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112 (2007); Davis v. Ayala, 576 U.S. 257 (2015). But the Court said what it meant in those two cases was that “if a federal court determines that a habeas petition fails because of Brecht, there is no need to prolong the matter by formally applying AEDPA as well.” While three Justices strongly disagreed with this “revision” of the Court’s precedents, the majority said the language in those cases was merely a “misunderstanding of stare decisis.”

In conclusion, the Court distinguished the strict Brecht test for harmless error in federal habeas corpus from the AEDPA’s more lenient test and found that both tests apply, even when the Brecht test is satisfied. The Court stated that even “assuming Mr. Davenport met his burden under Brecht, he cannot do so under AEDPA.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the grant of habeas relief. See: Brown v. Davenport, 2022 U.S. LEXIS 2096 (2022). 

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Related legal cases

Brown v. Davenport

Davis v. Ayala

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
576 U.S. ___; 135 S.Ct. 1428; 192 L.Ed.2d 323; 2015 U.S. LEXIS 4059

RON DAVIS, ACTING WARDEN, PETITIONER v. HECTOR AYALA

No. 13-1428.

March 3, 2015, Argued

June 18, 2015, Decided

NOTICE:

This preliminary Lexis version is unedited and subject to revision. The LEXIS pagination of this document is subject to change pending release of the final published version.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

DISPOSITION: 756 F. 3d 656, reversed and remanded.


SYLLABUS


During jury selection in respondent Ayala’s murder trial, Ayala, who is Hispanic, objected that seven of the prosecution’s peremptory challenges were impermissibly race-based under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79. The judge permitted the prosecution to disclose its reasons for the strikes outside the presence of the defense and concluded that the prosecution had valid, race-neutral reasons for the strikes. Ayala was eventually convicted and sentenced to death. On appeal, the California Supreme Court analyzed Ayala’s challenge under both Batson and its state-law analogue, concluding that it was error, as a matter of state law, to exclude Ayala from the hearings. The court held, however, that the error was harmless under state law and that, if a federal error occurred, it too was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under Chapman v. California, 386 U. S. 18. Ayala subsequently pressed his claims in federal court. There, the District Court held that even if the ex parte proceedings violated federal law, the state court’s harmlessness finding could not be overturned because it was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established [*2] federal law under 28 U. S. C. §2254(d). A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit disagreed and granted Ayala habeas relief. The panel majority held that the ex parte proceedings violated Ayala’s federal constitutional rights and that the error was not harmless under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U. S. 619, as to at least three of the seven prospective jurors.

Held: Any federal constitutional error that may have occurred by excluding Ayala’s attorney from part of the Batson hearing was harmless. Pp. 9-29.

(a) Even assuming that Ayala’s federal rights were violated, he is entitled to habeas relief only if the prosecution cannot demonstrate harmlessness. Glebe v. Frost, 574 U. S. ___, ___. Under Brecht, federal habeas petitioners “are not entitled to habeas relief based on trial error unless they can establish that it resulted in ‘actual prejudice.’” 507 U. S., at 637. Because Ayala seeks federal habeas corpus relief, he must meet the Brecht standard, but that does not mean, as the Ninth Circuit thought, that a state court’s harmlessness determination has no significance under Brecht. The Brecht standard subsumes the requirements that §2254(d) imposes when a federal habeas petitioner contests a state court’s determination that a constitutional error was harmless under Chapman. Fry v. Pliler, 551 U. S. 112, 120. But Brecht did not abrogate the limitation [*3] on federal habeas relief that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 plainly sets out. There is no dispute that the California Supreme Court held that any federal error was harmless under Chapman, and this decision was an “adjudication on the merits” of Ayala’s claim. Accordingly, a federal court cannot grant Ayala relief unless the state court’s rejection of his claim was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court, or was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. Pp. 9-12.

(b) Any federal constitutional error was harmless with respect to all seven prospective jurors. Pp. 12-28.

(1) The prosecution stated that it struck Olanders D., an African-American man, because it was concerned that he could not impose the death penalty and because of the poor quality of his responses. As the trial court and State Supreme Court found, the record amply supports the prosecution’s concerns, and Ayala cannot establish that the ex parte hearing prejudiced him. The Ninth Circuit misunderstood the role of a federal court in a habeas case. That role is not to conduct de novo review of factual findings [*4] and substitute the federal court’s own opinions for the determination made on the scene by the trial judge. Pp. 14-18.

(2) The prosecution stated that it struck Gerardo O., a Hispanic man, because he had a poor grasp of English, his answers suggested an unwillingness to impose the death penalty, and he did not appear to get along with other jurors. Each of these reasons was amply supported by the record, and there is no basis for finding that the absence of defense counsel affected the trial judge’s evaluation of the strike. Ayala cannot establish that the ex parte hearing actually prejudiced him or that no fairminded jurist could agree with the state court’s application of Chapman. Once again, the Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on a misapplication of basic rules regarding harmless error. The inquiry is not whether the federal habeas court could definitively say that the defense could make no winning arguments, but whether the evidence in the record raised “grave doubt[s]” about whether the trial judge would have ruled differently. O’Neal v. McAninch, 513 U. S. 432, 436. That standard was not met in this case. Pp. 18-24.

(3) The prosecution stated that it struck Robert M., a Hispanic man, because it was concerned that he could [*5] not impose the death penalty and because he had followed a controversial murder trial. Not only was the Ninth Circuit incorrect to suppose that the presence of Ayala’s counsel at the hearing would have made a difference in the trial court’s evaluation of the strike, but the Ninth Circuit failed to mention that defense counsel specifically addressed the issue during voir dire and reminded the judge that Robert M. also made several statements favorable to the death penalty. Thus, the trial judge heard counsel’s arguments and concluded that the record supplied a legitimate basis for the prosecution’s concern. That defense counsel did not have the opportunity to repeat that argument does not create grave doubt about whether the trial court would have decided the issue differently. Pp. 24-26.

(4) With regard to Ayala’s Batson objection about the four remaining prospective jurors who were struck, he does not come close to establishing “actual prejudice” under Brecht or that no fairminded jurist could agree with the California Supreme Court’s decision that excluding counsel was harmless. Pp. 26-28.

756 F. 3d 656, reversed and remanded.

JUDGES: ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., [*6] and SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., and THOMAS, J., filed concurring opinions. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and KAGAN, JJ., joined.


OPINION


JUSTICE ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

A quarter-century after a California jury convicted Hector Ayala of triple murder and sentenced him to death, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted Ayala’s application for a writ of habeas corpus and ordered the State to retry or release him. The Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on the procedure used by the trial judge in ruling on Ayala’s objections under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79 (1986), to some of the prosecution’s peremptory challenges of prospective jurors. The trial judge allowed the prosecutor to explain the basis for those strikes outside the presence of the defense so as not to disclose trial strategy. On direct appeal, the California Supreme Court found that if this procedure violated any federal constitutional right, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The Ninth Circuit, however, held that the error was harmful.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on the misapplication of basic rules regarding harmless error. Assuming without deciding [*7] that a federal constitutional error occurred, the error was harmless under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U. S. 619 (1993), and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U. S. C. §2254(d).

I

A

Ayala’s conviction resulted from the attempted robbery of an automobile body shop in San Diego, California, in April 1985. The prosecution charged Ayala with three counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, one count of robbery, and three counts of attempted robbery. The prosecution also announced that it would seek the death penalty on the murder counts.

Jury selection lasted more than three months, and during this time the court and the parties interviewed the prospective jurors and then called back a subset for general voir dire. As part of the jury selection process, more than 200 potential jurors completed a 77-question, 17-page questionnaire. Potential jurors were then questioned in court regarding their ability to follow the law. Jurors who were not dismissed for cause were called back in groups for voir dire, and the parties exercised their peremptory challenges.

Each side was allowed 20 peremptories, and the prosecution used 18 of its allotment. It used seven peremptories to strike all of the African-Americans and Hispanics [*8] who were available for service. Ayala, who is Hispanic, raised Batson objections to those challenges.

Ayala first objected after the prosecution peremptorily challenged two African-Americans, Olanders D. and Galileo S. The trial judge stated that these two strikes failed to establish a prima facie case of racial discrimination, but he nevertheless required the prosecution to reveal the reasons for the strikes. The prosecutor asked to do this outside the presence of the defense so as not to disclose trial strategy, and over Ayala’s objection, the judge granted the request. The prosecution then offered several reasons for striking Olanders D., including uncertainty about his willingness to impose the death penalty. The prosecution stated that it dismissed Galileo S. primarily because he had been arrested numerous times and had not informed the court about all his prior arrests. After hearing and evaluating these explanations, the judge concluded that the prosecution had valid, race-neutral reasons for these strikes.

Ayala again raised Batson objections when the prosecution used peremptory challenges to dismiss two Hispanics, Gerardo O. and Luis M. As before, the judge found that the defense [*9] had not made out a prima facie case, but ordered the prosecution to reveal the reasons for the strikes. This was again done ex parte, but this time the defense did not expressly object. The prosecution explained that it had challenged Gerardo O. and Luis M. in part because it was unsure that they could impose the death penalty. The prosecution also emphasized that Gerardo O.’s English proficiency was limited and that Luis M. had independently investigated the case. The trial court concluded a second time that the prosecution had legitimate race-neutral reasons for the strikes.

Ayala raised Batson objections for a third and final time when the prosecution challenged Robert M., who was Hispanic; George S., whose ethnicity was disputed; and Barbara S., who was African-American. At this point, the trial court agreed that Ayala had made a prima facie Batson showing. Ayala’s counsel argued that the strikes were in fact based on race. Ayala’s counsel contended that the challenged jurors were “not significantly different from the white jurors that the prosecution ha[d] chosen to leave on the jury both in terms of their attitudes on the death penalty, their attitudes on the criminal justice system, [*10] and their attitudes on the presumption of innocence.” App. 306. Ayala’s counsel then reviewed the questionnaire answers and voir dire testimony of Barbara S. and Robert M., as well as the statements made by three of the prospective jurors who had been the subject of the prior Batson objections, Galileo S., Gerardo O., and Luis M. Counsel argued that their answers showed that they could impose the death penalty. The trial court stated that it would hear the prosecution’s response outside the presence of the jury, and Ayala once more did not object to that ruling. The prosecution then explained that it had dismissed the prospective jurors in question for several race-neutral reasons, including uncertainty that Robert M., George S., or Barbara S. would be open to imposing the death penalty. The prosecution also emphasized (among other points) that Robert M. had followed a controversial trial, that George S. had been a holdout on a prior jury, and that Barbara S. had given the impression during voir dire that she was under the influence of drugs. The trial court concluded, for a third time, that the prosecution’s peremptory challenges were based on race-neutral criteria.

In August 1989, [*11] the jury convicted Ayala of all the charges except one of the three attempted robberies. With respect to the three murder convictions, the jury found two special circumstances: Ayala committed multiple murders, and he killed during the course of an attempted robbery. The jury returned a verdict of death on all three murder counts, and the trial court entered judgment consistent with that verdict.

B

Ayala appealed his conviction and sentence, and counsel was appointed to represent him in January 1993. Between 1993 and 1999, Ayala filed 20 applications for an extension of time, 11 of which requested additional time to file his opening brief. After the California Supreme Court eventually ruled that no further extensions would be granted, Ayala filed his opening brief in April 1998, nine years after he was convicted. The State filed its brief in September 1998, and Ayala then asked for four extensions of time to file his reply brief. After the court declared that it would grant him no further extensions, he filed his reply brief in May 1999.

In August 2000, the California Supreme Court affirmed Ayala’s conviction and death sentence. People v. Ayala, 24 Cal. 4th 243, 6 P. 3d 193. In an opinion joined by five justices, the State Supreme [*12] Court rejected Ayala’s contention that the trial court committed reversible error by excluding the defense from part of the Batson hearing. The court understood Ayala to challenge the peremptory strikes under both Batson and its state-law analogue, People v. Wheeler, 22 Cal. 3d 258, 583 P. 2d 748 (1978). The court first concluded that the prosecution had not offered matters of trial strategy at the ex parte hearing and that, “as a matter of state law, it was [error]” to bar Ayala’s attorney from the hearing. 24 Cal. 4th, at 262, 6 P. 3d, at 203.

Turning to the question of prejudice, the court stated:
“We have concluded that error occurred under state law, and we have noted [the suggestion in United States v. Thompson, 827 F. 2d 1254 (CA9 1987),] that excluding the defense from a Wheeler-type hearing may amount to a denial of due process. We nonetheless conclude that the error was harmless under state law (People v. Watson (1956) 46 Cal.2d 818, 836), and that, if federal error occurred, it, too, was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt (Chapman v. California (1967) 386 U. S. 18, 24) as a matter of federal law. On the record before us, we are confident that the challenged jurors were excluded for proper, race-neutral reasons.” Id., at 264, 6 P. 3d, at 204.


The court then reviewed the prosecution’s reasons for striking the seven prospective jurors and found that “[o]n this well-developed record, . . . We are confident that defense counsel could not [*13] have argued anything substantial that would have changed the court’s rulings. Accordingly, the error was harmless.” Id., at 268, 6 P. 3d, at 207. The court concluded that the record supported the trial judge’s implicit determination that the prosecution’s justifications were not fabricated and were instead “grounded in fact.” Id., at 267, 6 P. 3d, at 206. And the court emphasized that the “trial court’s rulings

Fry v. Pliler

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
550 U.S. 112; 127 S.Ct. 2321; 168 L.Ed.2d 16

JOHN FRANCIS FRY, PETITIONER v. CHERYL K. PLILER, WARDEN

No. 06-5247

March 20, 2007, Argued

June 11, 2007, Decided

NOTICE: [*1] The LEXIS pagination of this document is subject to change pending release of the final published version.

PRIOR HISTORY: ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINၔH CIRCUIT.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

SYLLABUS:

The trial judge presiding over petitioner's criminal trial excluded the testimony of defense-witness Pamela Maples. After his conviction, petitioner argued on appeal, inter alia, that the exclusion of Maples' testimony violated Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, which held that a combination of erroneous evidentiary rulings rose to the level of a due-process violation. The California Court of Appeal did not explicitly address that argument in affirming, but stated, without specifying which harmless-error standard it was applying, that "no possible prejudice" could have resulted in light of the cumulative nature of Maples' testimony. The State Supreme Court [*2] denied discretionary review. Petitioner then filed a federal habeas petition raising the due-process and other claims. The Magistrate Judge found the state appellate court's failure to recognize Chambers error an unreasonable application of clearly established law as set forth by this Court, and disagreed with the finding of "no possible prejudice," but concluded there was an insufficient showing that the improper exclusion of Maples' testimony had a "substantial and injurious effect" on the jury's verdict under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 631. Agreeing, the District Court denied relief, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Held: In 28 U.S.C. § 2254 proceedings, a federal court must assess the prejudicial impact of constitutional error in a state-court criminal trial under Brecht's "substantial and injurious effect" standard, whether or not the state appellate court recognized the error and reviewed it for harmlessness under the "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt" standard set forth in Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24. Pp. 3-8.

(a) That Brecht applies in § 2254 cases even if the state [*3] appellate court has not found, as did the state appellate court in Brecht, that the error was harmless under Chapman, is indicated by this Court's Brecht opinion, which did not turn on whether the state court itself conducted Chapman review, but instead cited concerns about finality, comity, and federalism as the primary reasons for adopting a less onerous standard on collateral review. 507 U.S., at 637. Since each of these concerns applies with equal force whether or not the state court reaches the Chapman question, it would be illogical to make the standard of review turn upon that contingency. Brecht, supra, at 636, distinguished. Petitioner presents a false analogy in arguing that, if Brecht applies whether or not the state appellate court conducted Chapman review, then Brecht would apply even if a State eliminated appellate review altogether. The Court also rejects petitioner's contention that, even if Brecht adopted a categorical rule, post-Brecht developments -- the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), as interpreted in Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12 -- require [*4] a different review standard. That result is not suggested by Esparza, which had no reason to decide the point, nor by AEDPA, which sets forth a precondition, not an entitlement, to the grant of habeas relief. Pp. 3-7.

(b) Petitioner's argument that the judgment below must still be reversed because excluding Maples' testimony substantially and injuriously affected the jury's verdict is rejected as not fairly encompassed by the question presented. Pp. 7-8.

Affirmed.

JUDGES: SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to all but footnote 1 and Part II-B. ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined that opinion in full; STEVENS, SOUTER, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined it as to all but Part II-B; and BREYER, J., joined as to all but footnote 1 and Part II-B. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which SOUTER and GINSBURG, JJ., joined, and in which BREYER, J., joined in part. BREYER, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

OPINION: JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

We decide whether a federal habeas court must assess the prejudicial impact of constitutional [*5] error in a state-court criminal trial under the "substantial and injurious effect" standard set forth in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), when the state appellate court failed to recognize the error and did not review it for harmlessness under the "harmless beyond a reasonable doubt" standard set forth in Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967).

I

After two mistrials on account of hung juries, a third jury convicted petitioner of the 1992 murders of James and Cynthia Bell. At trial, petitioner sought to attribute the murders to one or more other persons. To that end, he offered testimony of several witnesses who linked one Anthony Hurtz to the killings. But the trial court excluded the testimony of one additional witness, Pamela Maples, who was prepared to testify that she had heard Hurtz discussing homicides bearing some resemblance to the murder of the Bells. In the trial court's view, the defense had provided insufficient evidence to link the incidents described by Hurtz to the murders for which petitioner was charged.

Following his conviction, petitioner appealed to the California Court of Appeal, arguing (among other things) [*6] that the trial court's exclusion of Maples' testimony deprived him of a fair opportunity to defend himself, in violation of Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284 (1973) (holding that a combination of erroneous evidentiary rulings rose to the level of a due process violation). Without explicitly addressing petitioner's Chambers argument, the state appellate court held that the trial court had not abused its discretion in excluding Maples' testimony under California's evidentiary rules, adding that "no possible prejudice" could have resulted in light of the "merely cumulative" nature of the testimony. People v. Fry, No. A072396 (Ct. App. Cal., 1st App. Dist., Mar. 30, 2000), App. 97, n. 17. The court did not specify which harmless-error standard it was applying in concluding that petitioner suffered "no possible prejudice." The Supreme Court of California denied discretionary review, and petitioner did not then seek a writ of certiorari from this Court.

Petitioner next filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, raising the aforementioned due-process claim (among others). The [*7] case was initially assigned to a Magistrate Judge, who ultimately recommended denying relief. He found the state appellate court's failure to recognize error under Chambers to be "an unreasonable application of clearly established law as set forth by the Supreme Court," App. 180, and disagreed with the state appellate court's finding of "no possible prejudice." But he nevertheless concluded that "there had been an insufficient showing that the improper exclusion of the testimony of Ms. Maples had a substantial and injurious effect on the jury's verdict" under the standard set forth in Brecht. App. 181-182. The District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge's findings and recommendations in full, and a divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. We granted certiorari. 549 U.S. (2006).

II

A

In Chapman, supra, a case that reached this Court on direct review of a state-court criminal judgment, we held that a federal constitutional error can be considered harmless only if a court is "able to declare a belief that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt." Id., at 24. In Brecht, supra, [*8] we considered whether the Chapman standard of review applies on collateral review of a state-court criminal judgment under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Citing concerns about finality, comity, and federalism, we rejected the Chapman standard in favor of the more forgiving standard of review applied to nonconstitutional errors on direct appeal from federal convictions. See Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U.S. 750 (1946). Under that standard, an error is harmless unless it "'had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.'" Brecht, supra, at 631 (quoting Kotteakos, supra, at 776). The question in this case is whether a federal court must assess the prejudicial impact of the unconstitutional exclusion of evidence during a state-court criminal trial under Brecht even if the state appellate court has not found, as the state appellate court in Brecht had found, that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under Chapman. n1

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - Footnotes - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


n1 As this case comes to the Court, we assume (without deciding) that the state appellate court's decision affirming the exclusion of Maples' testimony was an unreasonable application of Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 302 (1973). We also assume that the state appellate court did not determine the harmlessness of the error under the Chapman standard, notwithstanding its ambiguous conclusion that the exclusion of Maples' testimony resulted in "no possible prejudice."


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We begin with the Court's opinion in Brecht. The primary reasons it gave for adopting a less onerous standard on collateral review of state-court criminal judgments did not turn on whether the state court itself conducted Chapman review. The opinion explained that application of Chapman would "undermine the States' interest in finality," 507 U.S., at 637; would "infringe upon [the States'] sovereignty over criminal matters," ibid.; would undercut the historic limitation of habeas relief to those "'grievously wronged,'" ibid.; and would "impose significant 'societal costs,'" ibid. (quoting United States v. Mechanik, 475 U.S. 66, 72 (1986)). Since each of these concerns applies with equal force whether or not the state court reaches the Chapman question, it would be illogical to make the standard of review turn upon that contingency.

The opinion in Brecht clearly assumed that the Kotteakos standard would apply in virtually all § 2254 cases. It suggested an exception only for the "unusual case" in which "a deliberate and especially egregious error of the trial type, or one that is combined with a pattern of prosecutorial [*10] misconduct . . . infects the integrity of the proceeding." 507 U.S., at 638, n. 9. This, of course, has nothing to do with whether the state court conducted harmless-error review. The concurring and dissenting opinions shared the assumption that Kotteakos would almost always be the standard on collateral review. The former stated in categorical terms that the "Kotteakos standard" "will now apply on collateral review" of state convictions, 507 U.S., at 643 (STEVENS, J., concurring). Justice White's dissent complained that under the Court's opinion Kotteakos would apply even where (as in this case) the state court found that "no violation had occurred," 507 U.S., at 644; and Justice O'Connor's dissent stated that Chapman would "no longer apply to any trial error asserted on habeas," 507 U.S., at 651. Later cases also assumed that Brecht's applicability does not turn on whether the state appellate court recognized the constitutional error and reached the Chapman question. See Penry v. Johnson, 532 U.S. 782, 795 (2001); Calderon v. Coleman, 525 U.S. 141, 145 (1998) [*11] (per curiam).

Petitioner's contrary position misreads (or at least exaggerates the significance of) a lone passage from our Brecht opinion. In that passage, the Court explained:
"State courts are fully qualified to identify constitutional error and evaluate its prejudicial effect on the trial process under Chapman, and state courts often occupy a superior vantage point from which to evaluate the effect of trial error. For these reasons, it scarcely seems logical to require federal habeas courts to engage in the identical approach to harmless-error review that Chapman requires state courts to engage in on direct review." 507 U.S., at 636 (citation omitted).


But the quoted passage does little to advance petitioner's position. To say (a) that since state courts are required to evaluate constitutional error under Chapman it makes no sense to establish Chapman as the standard for federal habeas review is not at all to say (b) that whenever a state court fails in its responsibility to apply Chapman the federal habeas standard must change. It would be foolish to equate the two, in view of the other weighty reasons given in [*12] Brecht for applying a less onerous standard on collateral review -- reasons having nothing to do with whether the state court actually applied Chapman.

Petitioner argues that, if Brecht applies whether or not the state appellate court conducted Chapman review, then Brecht would apply even if a State eliminated appellate review altogether. That is not necessarily so. The federal habeas review rule applied to the class of case in which state appellate review is available does not have to be the same rule applied to the class of case where it is not. We have no occasion to resolve that hypothetical (and highly unrealistic) question now. In the case before us petitioner did obtain appellate review of his constitutional claim; the state court simply found the underlying claim weak and therefore did not measure its prejudicial impact under Chapman. The attempted analogy -- between (1) eliminating appellate review altogether and (2) providing appellate review but rejecting a constitutional claim without assessing its prejudicial impact under Chapman -- is a false one.

Petitioner contends that, even if Brecht adopted a categorical rule, post-Brecht [*13] developments require a different standard of review. Three years after we decided Brecht, Congress passed, and the President signed, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), under which a habeas petition may not be granted unless the state court's adjudication "resulted in a decision that 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). In Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12 (2003) (per curiam), we held that, when a state court determines that a constitutional violation is harmless, a federal court may not award habeas relief under § 2254 unless the harmlessness determination itself was unreasonable. Petitioner contends that § 2254(d)(1), as interpreted in Esparza, eliminates the requirement that a petitioner also satisfy Brecht's standard. We think not. That conclusion is not suggested by Esparza, which had no reason to decide the point. Nor is it suggested by the text of AEDPA, which sets forth a precondition to the grant of habeas relief ("a writ of habeas [*14] corpus . . . shall not be granted" unless the conditions of § 2254(d) are met), not an entitlement to it. Given our frequent recognition that AEDPA limited rather than expanded the availability of habeas relief, see, e.g., Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000), it is implausible that, without saying so, AEDPA replaced the Brecht standard of "'actual prejudice,'" 507 U.S., at 637 (quoting United States v. Lane, 474 U.S. 438, 449 (1986)), with the more liberal AEDPA/Chapman standard which requires only that the state court's harmless-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt determination be unreasonable. That said, it certainly makes no sense to require formal application of both tests (AEDPA/Chapman and Brecht) when the latter obviously subsumes the former. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit was correct to apply the Brecht standard of review in assessing the prejudicial impact of federal constitutional error in a state-court criminal trial. n2

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