Harrington's Wake: Unanswered Questions on AEDPA's Application to Summary Dispositions

38 Pages Posted: 29 May 2011 Last revised: 7 Aug 2013

Date Written: February 1, 2012


In this Note, I propose a new solution to the problem of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s application to state court summary dispositions. The “reasonableness” standard of review in AEDPA seems to presuppose a written opinion memorializing the state court’s reasoning, which the federal court can subsequently analyze—and so it is unclear whether, and how, AEDPA should apply in the absence of a written opinion. I first argue that the Supreme Court was correct to hold, in Harrington v. Richter, that summary dispositions are adjudications on the merits for the purposes of § 2254(d)(1). But even if AEDPA applies to summary dispositions, there remains the further crucial question of how that deference should apply. When is a state court decision “unreasonable” if it provides no reasons? To answer this question, I reorient the debate away from the question of whether AEDPA applies and toward an examination of the state court’s deliberative processes in generating its decision. I distinguish between record-based claims, which are predicated on evidence contained in the trial record, and extra-record claims, which are predicated on evidence outside that record, such as a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington. When a state court decides a record-based claim by summary disposition, a federal court cannot assume that the state court failed to examine the evidence it had before it. However, in certain procedural contexts, the issuance of a summary disposition necessarily entails that the state court never examined extra-record evidence. Such summary dispositions of extra-record claims are unreasonable because, as the Supreme Court itself recognized in Williams v. Taylor, it is always unreasonable to apply law in the absence of fact. Accordingly, in such procedural contexts a state court’s deliberative process culminating in the issuance of a summary disposition was unreasonable.

Keywords: AEDPA, Summary Dispositions, Habeas Corpus, Harrington v. Richter

Suggested Citation

Seligman, Matthew, Harrington's Wake: Unanswered Questions on AEDPA's Application to Summary Dispositions (February 1, 2012). Stanford Law Review, 64 Stan. L. Rev. 469 (2012), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1852043

Matthew Seligman (Contact Author)

Yale Law School ( email )

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06510
United States

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