How Should Courts Approach Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims?

Almost all of the time defendants get competent lawyers and credible representation. But occasionally there are lawyers who because of high caseloads, competence or their own afflictions simple to not perform to the standards we should expect of defense counsel. Eve Brensike Primus (University of Michigan Law School) has posted Disaggregating Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Doctrine: Four Forms of Constitutional Ineffectiveness (Stanford Law Review, Vol. 72, 2020) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

For years, experts have blamed Strickland v. Washington’s lax standard for assessing trial attorney effectiveness for many of the criminal justice system’s problems. But the conventional understanding of Strickland as a problem for ineffectiveness claims gives Strickland too much prominence, because it treats Strickland as the test for all such claims. That is a mistake. Properly understood, the Supreme Court has recognized four different constitutional forms of trial attorney ineffectiveness, and Strickland’s two-pronged test applies to only one of the four. If litigants and courts would notice the complexity and relegate Strickland to its proper place, it would pave the way for meritorious ineffectiveness claims of the other three kinds. This Article disaggregates strands of Sixth Amendment doctrine that others have jumbled together so as to enable courts and litigants to confine Strickland to its proper domain and use more appropriate analyses elsewhere.

The Article also explains why additional disaggregation is necessary within the category of cases where Strickland rightly applies. Implicitly, the Supreme Court has created not one but three tests for assessing deficient performance within that domain, and it has indicated a willingness to soften the outcome-determinative prejudice prong as well. Failure to recognize these different forms of Strickland ineffectiveness has made the test seem much harder for defendants to satisfy than needs to be true. Recognizing these complexities, and applying the right test in the right case, is necessary if individual defendants are to be treated fairly and systemic constitutional problems in the provision of indigent defense services are to be addressed.

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