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Another Summary AEDPA Reversal

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The Supreme Court today summarily reversed yet another federal court of appeals decision overturning a state court based on the federal court's own dubious extrapolation from Supreme Court precedent, rather than because anything in the state court decision is actually contrary to Supreme Court precedent. That misuse of habeas for pushing the envelope has been error under case law since the 1989 decision of Teague v. Lane, and it has been forbidden by an Act of Congress since 1996. Yet some federal judges still don't get it.

The only thing unusual in today's summary reversal is that it was the Fifth Circuit that crossed the line. Usually it is the Ninth or the Sixth.

In Thaler v. Haynes, the prosecutor said he challenged a juror because she was not taking this capital case seriously enough. The judge believed him, but the judge who decided the motion was not the same judge who conducted the voir dire.  While it helps if the same judge also observed the voir dire, it takes a very strained reading of Batson v. Kentucky to find a requirement to that effect. What if the judge who conducted voir dire died suddenly between voir dire and the Batson motion. Would the defendant have an automatic entitlement to have his motion granted? The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals didn't buy it. Neither did the federal district judge.

The Fifth Circuit granted habeas relief.  For the "clearly established" requirement that a challenge based on juror demeanor must be judged by the judge who presided at voir dire, the Fifth Circuit cited Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 472 (2008).  The Supreme Court today noted that even if Snyder had held that (it didn't), Snyder was decided six years after the relevant state court opinion. Stare decisis requires obedience, not clairvoyance.

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Here's a link to the Fifth Circuit's decision in the case:


I'd be inclined to give the Fifth a break here. The opinion is at least plausible (unlike some others), and I suspect that the court got wrapped around the axle due to the odd voir dire proceedings. The panel may also have been a little gunshy given some of the Batson decisions that have not gone well at SCOTUS.

The panel includes Edith Clement, who is pretty well-regarded and certainly someone who is by no means inclined to blow off AEDPA. Judge Dennis, who authored the opinion, is a Clinton appointee. The other member of the panel is Judge Jolly, a Reagan appointee.

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