The district court denied Mr. Dufresne’s habeas petition (28 U.S.C. §2254) because two of his claims were procedurally defaulted and he was not entitled to relief on the merits of the remaining three claims. Mr. Dufresne filed a notice of appeal which the Sixth Circuit construed as an application for a COA under Fed.R.App.Proc. 22(b)(2). The Sixth Circuit said it could not overturn the denial of a COA unless reasonable jurists could debate whether it “states a valid claim of the denial of a constitutional right.” Consequently, it had to determine what constituted a “valid claim” under Slack.
To meet Slack’s standard the Sixth Circuit said a habeas petitioner cannot simply allege claims that are “arguably constitutional,” those claims “must also be arguably valid or meritorious.” (Sixth Circuit’s emphasis). The Sixth Circuit found such an approach consistent with the text of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA – see 28 U.S.C. §2253(c)(2) and §2254(d)) and Slack’s interpretation of its meaning. Since a COA can be issued only if the habeas petitioner makes a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right, a circuit court’s inquiry goes to the procedural component of the district court’s decision as well as the underlying merits. In addition, Slack’s standard is framed in terms of what “jurists of reason would find … debatable.” The Sixth Circuit cautioned against a full-blown merits inquiry at the COA stage. After examining the decisions of other circuit courts of appeals the Sixth Circuit concluded, “All that matters for our purposes is that a modest assessment of the merits of the claim is required.” The Sixth Circuit made that assessment of Mr. Dufresne’s claims and denied his application for a COA.