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Law School Case Brief

Baldwin v. Reese - 541 U.S. 27, 124 S. Ct. 1347 (2004)


Before seeking a federal writ of habeas corpus, a state prisoner must exhaust available state remedies, 28 U.S.C.S. § 2254(b)(1), thereby giving the state the opportunity to pass upon and correct alleged violations of its prisoners' federal rights. To provide the state with the necessary opportunity, the prisoner must fairly present his claim in each appropriate state court (including a state supreme court with powers of discretionary review), thereby alerting that court to the federal nature of the claim. 


An accused was convicted, in an Oregon state court, on charges of kidnapping and attempted sodomy. After the accused was unsuccessful on direct appeal, lower state courts denied him collateral relief. The accused then petitioned for discretionary review in the Oregon Supreme Court. This petition asserted, among other matters, that the accused had received "ineffective assistance of both trial court and appellate court counsel." While the petition alleged that trial counsel's conduct had violated several provisions of the federal Constitution, the petition did not explicitly say that its appellate-assistance words referred to a federal-law claim. The Oregon Supreme Court denied review. Subsequently, the accused sought habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, and included a federal-law claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. However, the district court ruled that the accused had not fairly presented his appellate-assistance claim to the higher state courts and denied the request for relief. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and ordered a remand, expressing the view that the accused had satisfied the "fair presentation" requirement, on the basis that (1) the justices of the Oregon Supreme Court had had the opportunity to read the lower state court decision claimed to be in error; and (2) if the justices had done so, then they would, or should, have realized that the accused's appellate assistance claim rested upon federal law. The case was elevated to the United States Supreme Court on certiorari.


Did the accused effectively present his appellate assistance claim to the higher state courts as required?




The United States Supreme Court held that the accused had failed to meet the "fair presentation" standard with respect to his federal law claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, for it was appropriate to assume that the accused's petition for discretionary review, had not, by the petition itself, properly alerted the Oregon Supreme Court to the federal nature of this claim. The Court explained that although the justices of the state supreme court had the opportunity to read the lower court opinions in the inmate's case, that opportunity did not mean that the inmate had fairly presented a federal claim when the appellate judges could have discovered that claim only by reading those opinions. To say otherwise would have required the state supreme court justices to read the lower court opinions, a requirement that federal habeas corpus law did not impose because it would have forced state appellate judges to alter their ordinary review practices, would have imposed a serious burden on them, and was unnecessary since litigants could easily indicate the federal law bases for their claims. Thus, the Court held that ordinarily a state prisoner did not fairly present a claim to a state court if that court must read beyond a petition or a brief (or a similar document) that did not alert it to the presence of a federal claim in order to find material, such as a lower court opinion in the case, that did so. Moreover, the inmate had not demonstrated that state law used the words "ineffective assistance" to refer only to a federal law claim.

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