Wednesday, January 4th, 2006

A Good Decision on When a State Court’s Finding of a Procedural Bar Is “Inadequate” to Preclude Federal Habeas Review

Monroe v. Kuhlman, Docket No. 03-3703 (2d Cir. Jan. 3, 2006) (Winter, Feinberg, Straub): This is somewhat of a rare bird: The Circuit concludes that the New York Court of Appeals improperly applied the state’s own contemporaneous objection rule and thus that its finding of a procedural default on direct appeal was “inadequate” to bar federal habeas review of the same question. Monroe claimed that his right to be present at all critical stages of the trial, as well as his right to “judicial supervision” of the trial, were violated when the state trial judge allowed the jury to view previously admitted evidence outside the presence of the judge and the parties during adjournments of the trial. Unfortunately, trial counsel did not object to the procedure. These claims were rejected on direct appeal. The N.Y. Court of Appeals found that (1) Monroe’s right to be present was not violated because the jury’s viewing of the evidence was merely an “ancillary proceeding”; and (2) his right to judicial supervision could not be considered on the merits because no contemporaneous objection was lodged.

On habeas review, the district court (Judge Weinstein) found that (1) the state court’s determination of the right-to-be-present claim was not an “unreasonable application” of federal law, and thus that the writ could not be granted on that basis. It also found that (2) the state court’s determination that Monroe failed to lodge a contemporaneous objection and thus forfeited his right to appellate review of the judicial supervision claim constituted an “independent and adequate” state-law ground to support its decision on this claim, and thus that federal habeas review was barred as well.

The Circuit agreed with Judge Weinstein on point 1, but reversed on point 2, concluding that the New York Court of Appeals misapplied the state’s own contemporaneous objection rule to bar review of the judicial supervision claim. Impressively canvassing New York case law over the last 70 years, the Court concluded that New York did not require a contemporaneous objection to preserve a claim that the defendant’s right to judicial supervision of the trial had been violated. As early as 1934, for instance, the state’s highest court held that “it was irrelevant under the circumstances that an objection was not made.” And in 1985, the same court held that “even a defendant’s consent could not overcome the right to judicial supervision during jury deliberations.” (emphasis in original). Similar decisions were rendered in 1991 and 2000.

Because “[t]hese cases make clear that New York state courts do not typically require judicial supervision claims to be preserved,” the Circuit concluded, the New York Court of Appeals’ application of the contemporaneous-objection rule to bar review of Monroe’s judicial supervision claim did not constitute an “adequate” state-law ground precluding federal habeas review. It thus remanded the matter to the district court for a consideration of this question on the merits.

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