Lee v. Kemna, 534 U.S. 362, 2 (2002)

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Cite as: 534 U. S. 362 (2002)


jection of that claim rested on state-law grounds—the failure of the continuance motion to comply with Rules 24.09 and 24.10—independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment, Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U. S. 722, 729.

Held: The Missouri Rules, as injected into this case by the state appellate court, did not constitute state grounds adequate to bar federal habeas review. Pp. 375-388.

(a) Although violation of firmly established and regularly followed state rules ordinarily bars federal review, there are exceptional cases in which exorbitant application of a generally sound rule renders the state ground inadequate to stop consideration of a federal question. See Davis v. Wechsler, 263 U. S. 22, 24. This case fits within that limited category. The Court is guided here by Osborne v. Ohio, 495 U. S. 103, 122-125. Osborne applied the general principle that an objection ample and timely to bring an alleged federal error to the attention of the trial court, enabling it to take appropriate corrective action, satisfies legitimate state interests, and therefore suffices to preserve the claim for federal review. The sequence of events in Lee's case also guides the Court's judgment. The asserted procedural oversights, Lee's alleged failures fully to comply with Rules 24.09 and 24.10, were first raised more than two and a half years after his trial. The two Rules, Missouri asserted, work together to enhance the reliability of a trial court's determination whether to delay a scheduled criminal trial due to the absence of a witness. Yet neither the prosecutor nor the trial judge so much as mentioned the Rules as a reason for denying Lee's continuance motion. If either had done so at the appropriate time, Lee would have had an opportunity to perfect his plea to hold the case over until the next day. Instead, the State first raised Rule 24.10 as a new argument in its brief to the Missouri Court of Appeals, and that court, it seems, raised Rule 24.09's writing requirements on its own motion. Pp. 375-380.

(b) Three considerations, in combination, lead to the conclusion that the asserted state grounds are inadequate to block adjudication of Lee's federal claim. First, when the trial judge denied Lee's motion, he stated a reason that could not have been countered by a perfect motion for continuance: He said he could not carry the trial over until the next day because he had to be with his daughter in the hospital; he further informed counsel that another scheduled trial prevented him from concluding Lee's case on the following business day. Although the judge hypothesized that the witnesses had abandoned Lee, no proffered evidence supported this supposition. Second, no published Missouri decision directs flawless compliance with Rules 24.09 and 24.10 in the


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