“It Is a Bad Idea . . . to Leave the Judge with a Smoldering Suspicion . . .”

On Friday, in Johnson v. Sherry, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated the district court’s denial of William Johnson’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus and remanded the case for additional proceedings to determine whether Johnson received inadequate assistance of counsel.  In his habeas petition, Johnson maintained that his representation had been constitutionally inadequate because his attorney failed to object to the temporary exclusion of the public from his murder trial.  Judge Clay delivered the opinion of the court, joined by Judge Cole.

Judge Kethledge dissented from the court’s judgment.  His dissenting opinion begins:

In defending a murder charge, it is a bad idea, I think, to leave the judge with a smoldering suspicion that your client had a role in killing two of the prosecution’s key witnesses before trial. A lawyer who minimizes that danger—by consenting to, rather than fighting, closure of the courtroom during the testimony of three surviving witnesses, out of a total of 18 testifying witnesses in the case—does not thereby render constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel. That is all the more true, in my opinion, when there is not a shred of evidence that the closure had the slightest effect on the trial’s outcome.

The majority concludes otherwise. The majority suggests that the closure fight here was one worth having—indeed, that it was constitutionally mandated—its ethereal upside and concrete downside notwithstanding. The majority then sidesteps the absence of any actual prejudice resulting from Johnson’s consent to the closure—and with it, the plainly stated actual-prejudice requirement of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)—by holding that Johnson need not show any prejudice at all in support of his ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim. That holding is not supported by “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court,” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), which means that we are without power to impose it on the Michigan state courts in this habeas case. I respectfully dissent.

It seems to me the majority’s opinion is a bit of a stretch, and Judge Kethledge has the better of the argument under existing law.  The Supreme Court has been anything-but-bashful in reviewing alleged ineffective assistance of counsel claims of late.  (See, for instance, today’s per curiam opinion in Wong v. Belmontes and last week’s decision in Bobby v. Van Hook.) So, even though this is not a capital case, I would not be surprised were this case reversed en banc if not by the Supreme Court.