Jackson v. Edwards, Docket No. 03-2805 (2d Cir. April 14, 2005) (Newman, Sack, Parker) (Op. by Parker): In this case, the Circuit affirms a grant of habeas by Judge Weinstein, and in so doing clarifies an issue regarding exhaustion. The substantive issue is fact specific — it concerns whether the defendant was entitled to a justification charge during his state trial for homicide and criminal possession of a weapon. Readers interested in that issue should consult the opinion. Suffice it to say that the Second Circuit concluded that, under the specific facts of this case, the state trial court violated the defendant’s Due Process right when it refused to give a justification charge.
The exhaustion question concerned whether the defendant’s brief to the Appellate Division “fairly presented” the federal Due Process claim — the subject of the instant habeas petition — when it “argued only that the trial court’s refusal to instruct the jury on the defense of justification violated New York law and failed to cite the federal Constitution, federal case law, or state law employing federal constitutional analysis.” Op. 9. After surveying recent Supreme Court and Second Circuit case law relevant to the issue, the Court explained that it was an open question whether a defendant needed to “indicate [a] claim’s federal nature [where] the standards for adjudicating the state and federal law claims were identical.” Op. at 11. The Court then concluded that the defendant did in fact “fairly present” the Due Process issue even though he raised only state-law claims to the Appellate Division.
The reason for this seems rather obvious: Where state and federal claims “share the same legal standard,” as here, the rationale underlying the exhaustion requirement — the desire to let state courts have the first opportunity to correct their own errors — are easily met by a presentation of “only” the state claim to state courts. As the Second Circuit explained, the defendant “did not explicitly have to tell the state court that he was presenting a federal due process claim because, by raising his state law claim, he necessarily gave the Appellate Division a fair ‘opportunity to pass upon and correct alleged violations of [his] federal rights.'” Op. at 14.