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Lamb v. Haviland

March 6, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James K. Singleton, Jr. United States District Judge


Petitioner, a state prisoner proceeding pro se, seeks a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He challenges a 2004 judgment of conviction entered in the Superior Court of California, Amador County, on charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (count II), driving under the influence and causing injury (count III), and driving with a .08% and more blood alcohol level and causing injury (count IV). Petitioner alleges relief is warranted on the grounds that: (1) counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to seek disqualification of the trial judge; and (2) Petitioner was denied his right to due process and a fair trial when the trial court presented the appearance of bias. Docket No. 1 (Pet.). Respondent asserts that Petitioner's arguments fail on the merits. Docket No. 10. Petitioner has filed a Traverse. Docket Nos. 15 (Trav.). The petition will be denied for the reasons set forth below.


In an unpublished opinion filed on January 31, 2006, the California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, summarized the factual background of the offense and trial:

After taking pain medication and drinking enough beer and tequila to register a 0.22 percent blood-alcohol content, defendant Timothy Lamb drove his truck down a two-lane road at speeds nearly twice the posted speed limit. He lost control of his vehicle, crossed the center line, hit one car and injured its driver, then hit a second car and killed its driver.

A jury acquitted defendant of murder-count 1; and found untrue allegations that the driver of the first car suffered great bodily injury. However, the jury convicted defendant of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated-count 2, driving under the influence (DUI) causing injury-count 3, and causing injury by driving with a blood alcohol level of more than 0.08 percent-count 4. The jury also found true various charged enhancements, including that defendant personally inflicted death on one person, injured more than one victim, and had a blood alcohol level of at least 0.20 percent. . . .

People v. Lamb, No. C046556, Slip op. at 2-3 (Cal. Ct. App. January 31, 2006) (available in the record as Lodged Document No. 4) (internal citations omitted).

As Petitioner had expressly waived jury trial on the issue, the trial court found true the allegation that Petitioner had suffered two prior convictions for DUI. Based on this last allegation, Petitioner was sentenced to 15 years to life for gross vehicular manslaughter in accordance with California Penal Code section 191.5(d). All of the charges and enhancements together resulted in an aggregate sentence of 17 years to life.

Petitioner appealed his conviction, arguing, inter alia, that the trial court was biased. The Court of Appeal affirmed in a reasoned decision. Lamb, No. C046556, Slip op. at 20. The Supreme Court of California denied review without comment on June 14, 2006. People v. Lamb, No. S141100, Slip op. (Cal. June 14, 2006) (available in the record as Lodged Document No. 8). On April 6, 2007, Petitioner applied to the Amador County Superior Court for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that his counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to move for disqualification of the trial judge. Lodged Document No. 9. The superior court denied the application because Petitioner had failed to establish prejudice. Lodged Document No. 10. Petitioner subsequently collaterally raised his ineffective assistance claim before both the California Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of California. Lodged Document Nos. 11, 13. The petitions were denied without comment. Lodged Document Nos. 12, 14.


A writ of habeas corpus is available under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 only on the basis of some transgression of federal law binding on the state courts. See Peltier v. Wright, 15 F.3d 860, 861 (9th Cir. 1993); Middleton v. Cupp, 768 F.2d 1083, 1085 (9th Cir. 1985) (citing Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 119 (1982)). A federal writ is not available for an alleged error in the interpretation or application of state law. See Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991); Park v. California, 202 F.3d 1146, 1149-50 (9th Cir. 2000); Middleton, 768 F.2d at 1085. Habeas corpus cannot be utilized to try state issues de novo. Milton v. Wainwright, 407 U.S. 371, 377 (1972).

Because the instant petition was filed after April 24, 1996, any claim therein that was adjudicated by a state court on the merits is governed by the deferential standard of review set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254. See Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 336 (1997); Clark v. Murphy, 331 F.3d 1062, 1067 (9th Cir. 2003). Where a state court has adjudicated the merits of a petitioner's claim, this Court, under AEDPA, may not grant relief unless the state court decision "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). A state court decision is contrary to clearly established federal law "if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme Court] on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the Court] has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 413 (2000). A state court decision involves an unreasonable application of Supreme Court case law if it "identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Court's] decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the particular facts of [a] prisoner's case." Id. To qualify as "unreasonable," it must be objectively unreasonable, a substantially higher threshold than merely incorrect. Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 127 S.Ct. 1933, 1939 (2007).

Clearly established federal law refers only to the holdings of the Supreme Court's decisions in effect at the time of the relevant state-court decision. Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 74 (2006). In the absence of an applicable holding of the Supreme Court, it cannot be said that a state court decision is contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. See id. at 77. Finally, even if the AEDPA standard is satisfied, the Court cannot grant relief unless the error had a "substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict." Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 638 (1993); Fry v. Pliler, 127 S.Ct. 2321, 2326-27 (2007) (Brecht standard continues to apply after enactment of AEDPA).

In applying this standard, a federal district court looks to the last reasoned state court decision as the basis for the state court judgment. Robinson v. Ignacio, 360 F.3d 1044, 1055 (9th Cir. 2004). The Court presumes that the state court's findings of fact are correct, unless the petitioner rebuts the presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003). Where a state court has "silently denied" a claim on the merits without explaining its ratio decidendi, a district court independently reviews the record to determine if the denial was an unreasonable ...

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