Strickland v. Washington (1984): Landmark Supreme Court Case
Strickland v. Washington (1984) is one of the landmark Supreme Court cases featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Strickland v. Washington (1984)
David Washington pleaded guilty to murder in a Florida state court. At sentencing, his attorney did not seek out character witnesses or request a psychiatric evaluation. Subsequently, the trial court sentenced Mr. Washington to death finding no mitigating circumstances to rule otherwise.
After exhausting his state court remedies, Mr. Washington sought habeas corpus relief in a Florida federal district court. He argued that his Sixth Amendment right was violated because he had ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing.
The district court denied the petition. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. The court held that the Sixth Amendment accorded criminal defendants a right to counsel rendering “reasonably effective assistance given the totality of the circumstances.” It then remanded the case to the district court to apply this standard and determine whether Mr. Washington’s counsel was sufficiently prejudicial to justify the reversal of his sentence.
Strickland Legal Questions and Answers
Q: What standard should be applied to determine whether a convicted person’s 6th amendment right to counsel has been violated so as to require reversal of a conviction or set aside a death sentence?
A: Objective standard of reasonableness with reasonable probability of different result.
8-1 ruling to obtain relief because of ineffective assistance of counsel, a criminal defendant must show both that counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that counsel’s deficient performance gives rise to a reasonable probability that if counsel had performed adequately, the result of the proceeding would have been different. The decision was a compromise by the majority in which the varying “tests for ineffective performance of counsel” among the federal circuits and state supreme courts were forced into a singular middle ground test. State governments are free to create a test even more favorable to an appellant.