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AEDPA Resistance Reversed Again

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No law in modern history has met with as much resistance from federal judges as the key habeas reform of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). In 28 U.S.C. §2254(d), Congress told the lower federal courts that they do not have the same authority over state courts as the U.S. Supreme Court does. They cannot overturn the state judgment on habeas corpus merely because they would have decided the case the other way. So long as the state court applies the correct U.S. Supreme Court precedent within the broad range of reasonable disagreement, the state court decision stands.

But far too many federal judges just will not accept this law. The Lett case decided by the Supreme Court today involves a mistrial when a jury deadlocks. The Supreme Court precedent is rather amorphous, so the range of reasonable disagreement is rather broad. The Sixth Circuit had set up its own test with a more crystallized rule. It then declared the Michigan Supreme Court's decision to be unreasonable for failing to comply with the Sixth Circuit's interpretation of Supreme Court precedent. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. That is exactly what Congress prohibited when it specified Supreme Court precedent as the "clearly established Federal law" that state courts must follow.


The Court of Appeals also erred in a second respect. It relied upon its own decision in Fulton v. Moore, 520 F. 3d 522 (CA6 2008), for the proposition "that Arizona v. Washington sets forth three factors that determine whether a judge has exercised sound discretion in declaring a mistrial: whether the judge (1) heard the opinions of the parties' counsel about the propriety of the mistrial; (2) considered the alternatives to a mistrial; and (3) acted deliberately, instead of abruptly." 316 Fed. Appx., at 426. It then cited Fulton's interpretation of Washington to buttress its conclusion that the Michigan Supreme Court erred in concluding that the trial judge had exercised sound discretion. 316 Fed. Appx., at 428.

The Fulton decision, however, does not constitute "clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court," §2254(d)(1), so any failure to apply that decision cannot independently authorize habeas relief under AEDPA. Nor, as the dissent suggests, can Fulton be understood merely to "illuminat[e]" Washington. Post, at 18. Washington nowhere established these three factors as a constitutional test that "determine[s]" whether a trial judge has exercised sound discretion in declaring a mistrial. 316 Fed. Appx., at 426.

In concluding that Lett is not entitled to a writ of habeas corpus, we do not deny that the trial judge could have been more thorough before declaring a mistrial. As the Court of Appeals pointed out, id., at 427-428, she could have asked the foreperson additional followup questions, granted additional time for further deliberations, or consulted with the prosecutor and defense counsel before acting. Any of these steps would have been appropriate under the circumstances. None, however, was required--either under our double jeopardy precedents or, by extension, under AEDPA.

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AEDPA prevents defendants--and federal courts--from using federal habeas corpus review as a vehicle to second-guess the reasonable decisions of state courts. Whether or not the Michigan Supreme Court's opinion reinstating Lett's conviction in this case was correct, it was clearly not unreasonable. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
The Supreme Court has reversed many decisions such as this one since AEDPA was adopted, but many more have gone uncorrected. Given the persistence of the "massive resistance" to this law, I think it is necessary to limit habeas further, as soon as Congress is back in the control of persons of sense.

5 Comments

Particularly irksome is Stevens' dissent. The defendant/prisoner didn't object to the declaration of a mistrial. That the Michigan courts decided to deal with the issue on the merits should not mean that a federal habeas court (or a Supreme Court dissent) should resolve the ambiguities in a sparse record in favor of the defendant/prisoner.

4 down, 1 to go for Michigan SG Eric Restuccia and his people this term(how about Eric for the 6th circuit next time there is a Republican president?).

Not to count chickens, but Renico seemed a closer case than Thompkins.

Federalist: from your lips to....

I don't think there are more than 2 votes for Thompkins' position. It would be a travesty if the prisoner got to shift his argument in medias res and get the win.

OT, but I really think that the Sixth Circuit panel's decision not to publish Renico was a bad one. Clearly, the case was worth publication. I wonder if they were trying to bury it.

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