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Reasonable Applications

If a criminal defendant argues a debatable question in his appeal in the state courts, those courts rule against him, and the U.S. Supreme Court declines to take up the case (as it does 99% of the time), should the defendant get another bite and the apple in the lower federal courts?  Should a single federal district judge or a three-judge panel of the federal court of appeals be able to effectively overturn the considered judgment of the state supreme court?

For a long time, that was the way it worked.  Perhaps there was a policy justification for it at the time, but beginning in the mid-1970s, the Supreme Court and Congress have been pushing the law in the other direction.  Most debatable constitutional questions in criminal cases today are far removed from the real Constitution and rarely have much to do with our confidence we have the right guy.  On top of that, the asymmetric nature of habeas corpus make it a "heads I win, tails we take it over" form of review tilting in the defendant's favor, a tilt that is unnecessary and unjust when we are not talking about questions of actual innocence.

A big leap forward was made in 1996, when Congress enacted that a claim decided on the merits by the state court could not be the basis for a federal writ of habeas corpus unless the state decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" or was "based on an unreasonable determination of the facts."

Defendant-leaning federal judges hate this law and have been evading it ever since.  The Supreme Court smacks them down, sometimes harshly, but as one of the worst is rumored to have said, "they can't reverse them all."

Another smackdown came today.  In addition to strong words, though, the Supreme Court closed a loophole, making an important advance for justice.
Deciding whether a state court decision is contrary to clearly established Supreme Court precedent has not been too much of a problem.  In practice, that part of the rule generally gets to the same result as the 1989 rule of Teague v. Lane, in which the Court held (at the suggestion of yours truly) that new rules could neither be made nor applied retroactively on habeas corpus.

The unreasonable finding of facts prong also doesn't come up that much.  Trial judges are pretty good at getting the facts right in these matters.

The problem has been the "unreasonable application" clause.  What does that mean?  What it should mean is what the Supreme Court said in Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 413 (2000).

Under the "unreasonable application" clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from this Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.

Unfortunately, an otherwise good Fourth Circuit opinion, Green v. French, added another dimension to "unreasonable application" and said this included a situation where a state court "unreasonably refuses to extend [a] principle to a new context ...."  If accepted, that notion would undercut the requirement that only "clearly established" rules count, because the question of whether to extend an existing rule to new territory is nearly always debatable.

The Supreme Court in Williams discussed the Green v. French language but expressly refrained from deciding whether it was correct.  Regrettably, a plurality opinion in Ramdass v. Angelone, 530 U.S. 156 (2000) sloppily and needlessly paraphrased that language in a case where the state court decision was entirely reasonable and there was no need to decide whether the "extension" gloss on "unreasonable application" was proper.

Today in White v. Woodall, the Supreme Court returned to the question and restored 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(1) to its simple and correct meaning as stated in Williams.  The Green/Ramdass notion -- that a federal court can look at Supreme Court precedents, decide they should be extended to new territory where the high court itself has never taken them, and declare a state court decision unreasonable for not blazing a new trail -- is dead.

The basic idea of §2254(d) is that criminal defendant should only get one shot -- in state court -- of arguing debatable points.  Federal habeas remains a safety net in case the state courts completely fail to do their jobs and are clearly wrong, but in all debatable questions the state court decision stands.  The law is an important step closer to that principle today.


The scotusblog reviewer seems unhappy with what seems to me an opinion perfectly consistent with the AEDPA, characterizing the Court as having a "robust view of the limitations contained in AEDPA." I don't think the Court's view "robust," I think it's one required by the AEDPA.

Welcome, Tim.

The reviewer is Jordan Steiker, a dyed-in-the-wool death penalty opponent. His unhappiness with the opinion is unsurprising, to put it mildly.

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