Smith v Robbins

Citation120 S.Ct. 746,528 U.S. 259,145 L.Ed.2d 756
Decision Date19 January 2000
Docket Number981037
PartiesGEORGE SMITH, WARDEN, PETITIONER v. LEE ROBBINSSupreme Court of the United States
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

An attorney appointed to represent an indigent defendant on appeal may conclude that an appeal would be frivolous and request that the appellate court allow him to withdraw or that the court dispose of the case without the filing of merits briefs. In Anders v. California, 386 U. S. 738 , this Court found that, in order to protect a defendant's constitutional right to appellate counsel, courts must safeguard against the risk of granting such requests where an appeal is not actually frivolous; found California's procedure for evaluating such requests inadequate; and set forth an acceptable procedure. California adopted a new procedure in People v. Wende, 25 Cal. 3d 436, 600 P. 2d 1071. Unlike under the Anders procedure, counsel under Wende neither explicitly states that his review has led him to conclude that an appeal would be frivolous nor requests to withdraw; instead he is silent on the merits of the case and offers to brief issues at the court's direction. A California state-court jury convicted respondent Robbins of second-degree murder and grand theft. His appointed counsel on appeal concluded that appeal would be frivolous and filed with the State Court of Appeal a brief that complied with the Wende procedure. Agreeing with counsel's assessment, the Court of Appeal affirmed. The California Supreme Court denied review. After exhausting his state postconviction remedies, Robbins sought federal habeas relief, arguing, inter alia, that he had been denied effective assistance of appellate counsel because his counsel's Wende brief did not comply with the Anders requirement that the brief refer "to anything in the record that might arguably support the appeal," 386 U. S. , at 744 . The District Court agreed, concluding that there were at least two issues that might arguably have supported Robbins's appeal and finding that his counsel's failure to include them in his brief deviated from the Anders procedure and thus amounted to deficient performance by counsel. Rather than requiring Robbins to prove prejudice from this deficiency, the court applied a presumption of prejudice. The Ninth Circuit agreed, concluding that Anders, together with Douglas v. California , 372 U. S. 353 --which held that States must provide appointed counsel to indigent criminal defendants on appeal--set forth the exclusive procedure by which appointed counsel's performance could be constitutional, and that counsel's brief failed to comply with that procedure. The court, however, remanded the case for the District Court to consider other trial errors raised by Robbins.


1. The Anders procedure is only one method of satisfying the Constitution's requirements for indigent criminal appeals; the States are free to adopt different procedures, so long as those procedures adequately safeguard a defendant's right to appellate counsel. Pp. 6-13.

(a) In finding that the California procedure at issue in Anders --which permitted appellate counsel to withdraw upon filing a conclusory letter stating that the appeal had "no merit" and permitted the appellate court to affirm the conviction upon reaching the same conclusion following a review of the record--did not comport with fair procedure and lacked the equality that the Fourteenth Amendment requires, this Court placed the case within a line of precedent beginning with Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U. S. 12 , and continuing with Douglas v. California, 372 U. S. 353 , that imposed constitutional constraints on those States choosing to create appellate review. Comparing the California procedure to other procedures that this Court had found invalid and to statutory requirements in the federal courts governing appeals by indigents with appointed counsel, the Court concluded that the finding that the appeal had "no merit" was inadequate because it did not mean that the appeal was so lacking in prospects as to be frivolous. The Court, in a final, separate section, set out what would be an acceptable procedure for treating frivolous appeals. Pp. 6-9.

(b) The Ninth Circuit erred in finding that Anders' s final section, though unnecessary to the holding in that case, was obligatory upon the States. This Court has never so held; its precedents suggest otherwise; and the Ninth Circuit's view runs contrary to this Court's established practice. In McCoy v. Court of Appeals of Wis., Dist. 1, 486 U. S. 429 , this Court rejected a challenge to Wisconsin's variation on the Anders procedure, even though that variation, in at least one respect, provided less effective advocacy for an indigent. In Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U. S. 551 , the Court explained that the Anders procedure is not an independent constitutional command, but rather a prophylactic framework; it did not say that this was the only framework that could adequately vindicate the right to appellate counsel announced in Douglas. Similarly, in Penson v. Ohio, 488 U. S. 75 , the Court described Anders as simply erecting safeguards. Finally, any view of the procedure described in Anders' s last section that converted it from a suggestion into a straitjacket would contravene this Court's established practice of allowing the States wide discretion, subject to the minimum requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment, to experiment with solutions to difficult policy problems. See e.g., Griffin , supra. The Court, because of its status as a court--particularly a court in a federal system--avoids imposing a single solution on the States from the top down and instead evaluates state procedures one at a time, while leaving "the more challenging task of crafting appropriate procedures ... to the laboratory of the States ... in the first instance," Cruzan v. Director, Mo. Dept. of Health, 497 U. S. 261 ( O'Connor, J., concurring). Pp. 9-13.

2. California's Wende procedure does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 13-22.

(a) The precise rationale for the Griffin and Douglas line of cases has never been explicitly stated, but this Court's case law reveals that the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment largely converge to require that a State's procedure "afford adequate and effective appellate review to indigent defendants," Griffin, supra, at 20 (plurality opinion). A State's procedure provides such review so long as it reasonably ensures that an indigent's appeal will be resolved in a way that is related to the merit of that appeal. In determining whether a particular procedure satisfies this standard, it is important to focus on the underlying goals that the procedure should serve--to ensure that those indigents whose appeals are not frivolous receive the counsel and merits brief required by Douglas, and also to enable the State to "protect itself so that frivolous appeals are not subsidized and public moneys not needlessly spent," Griffin, supra, at 24 (Frankfurter, J., concurring in judgment). For an indigent's right to counsel on direct appeal does not include the right to bring a frivolous appeal and, concomitantly, does not include the right to counsel for bringing a frivolous appeal. Anders 's obvious goal was to prevent this limitation on the right to appellate counsel from swallowing the right itself, and the Court does not retreat from that goal here. Pp. 14-16.

(b) The Wende procedure reasonably ensures that an indigent's appeal will be resolved in a way that is related to the appeal's merit. A comparison of that procedure to those evaluated in this Court's chief cases demonstrates that it affords indigents the adequate and effective appellate review required by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Wende procedure is undoubtedly far better than those procedures the Court has found inadequate. A significant fact in finding the old California procedure inadequate in Anders , and also in finding inadequate the procedures that the Court reviewed in Eskridge v. Washington Bd. of Prison Terms and Paroles, 357 U. S. 214 , and Lane v. Brown, 372 U. S. 477 , two of the precedents on which the Anders Court relied, was that those procedures required only a determination that the defendant was unlikely to prevail on appeal, not that the appeal was frivolous. Wende, by contrast, requires both counsel and the court to find the appeal to be lacking in arguable issues, i.e., frivolous. An additional problem with the old California procedure was that it apparently permitted an appellate court to allow counsel to withdraw and then decide the appeal without appointing new counsel. Such a procedure was struck down in Penson v. Ohio, 488 U. S. 75 , because it permitted a basic violation of the Douglas right to have counsel until a case is determined to be frivolous and to receive a merits brief for a nonfrivolous appeal. Under Wende, by contrast, Douglas violations do not occur, both because counsel does not move to withdraw and because the court orders briefing if it finds arguable issues. The procedure disapproved in Anders also only required counsel to file a one-paragraph "bare conclusion" that the appeal had no merit, while Wende requires that counsel provide a summary of the case's procedural and factual history, with citations of the record, in order to ensure that a trained legal eye has searched the record for arguable issues and to assist the reviewing court in its own evaluation. Finally, by providing at least two tiers of review, the Wende procedure avoids the additional flaw, found in the Eskridge , Lane, and Douglas procedures, of having only one such tier. Pp. 16-19.

(c) The Wende procedure is also at least comparable to those procedures the Court has approved. By neither requiring the Wende brief to raise legal issues nor requiring counsel to explicitly describe the case as frivolous, California has made a good-faith...

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