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Prison Inmates and Miranda

Speaking of AEDPA and circuits divisible by three, today's US Supreme Court's decision in Howes v. Fields begins:

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that our precedents clearly establish that a prisoner is in custody within the meaning of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U. S. 436 (1966), if the prisoner is taken aside and questioned about events that occurred outside the prison walls. Our decisions, however, do not clearly establish such a rule, and therefore the Court of Appeals erred in holding that this rule provides a permissible basis for federal habeas relief under the relevant provision of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U. S. C. ยง2254(d)(1).

Once upon a time, the argument that Mathis v. United States, 391 U. S. 1 (1968), establishes such a rule would have been a strong one.  It is a typical Hugo Black opinion, short and sweeping, strongly implying that any kind of custody triggers the Miranda requirements.  But then Illinois v. Perkins, 496 U. S. 292 (1990) declined to apply the custody requirement that literally.  In its 2010 decision in Maryland v. Shatzer, the Court held that time spent in the general prison population may constitute a "break in custody" for the purpose of the Edwards "don't ask again" rule, a result inconsistent with the straightforward application of Mathis.

Today the Court held, unanimously, that the rule applied by the Sixth Circuit is not clearly established by the Supreme Court's precedents, reinstating the conviction of a prisoner questioned within prison.  The Court could have stopped there, but six Justices went on to hold that Miranda was inapplicable in the circumstances of this interrogation.  Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented from this holding.  "Were the case here on direct review, I would vote to hold that Miranda precludes the State's introduction of Fields's confession as evidence against him."

But of course it is not on direct review, so is the split part of the opinion binding precedent or nonbinding dictum?  It is precedent, in my opinion.  AEDPA says that a federal court cannot grant relief if the state court decision on the merits is unreasonable.  It does not say that a federal court cannot deny relief on the ground that the claim is without merit, i.e., that the state court is not just reasonable, but right.  The Supreme Court's decision of the merits without regard to AEDPA is therefore an alternative holding, not dictum, and binding on all other courts.

In most cases in the lower federal courts, the more efficient way to dispose of a case is to find the state court's decision reasonable and stop.  But the Supreme Court's job is to establish clear precedents for other courts to follow, not just to efficiently decide the specific case before it.  With either course permitted by law, the preferred course for the Supreme Court may be different than for the lower federal courts.

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