Statutory limit on federal court review of state convictions stifles ideological differences


The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) was enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. A principal goal of AEDPA was to circumscribe the scope of federal habeas corpus review — that is, federal court review of prior state court convictions.

Even though the Supreme Court had long tried to limit federal habeas reversal of state court convictions to instances where the state courts had acted contrary to what was at the time “clearly established law,” AEDPA prohibited federal habeas courts from revisiting a legal claim that was previously adjudicated in state court unless the state court adjudication resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Thus, in AEDPA’s wake, federal habeas relief will not be available merely because the federal habeas court disagrees with the state court’s adjudication. For a federal habeas court to intervene, it must be the case that the state court adjudication was inconsistent not just with some general understanding of the “clearly established law” at the time, but rather with law that was at the time clearly established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

To see how effective AEDPA has been at achieving the goal of limiting federal habeas review, one need only look at the first two cases handed down by the Supreme Court in its new October 2017 term.

In both cases, the court’s ruling left intact the conviction obtained in and the punishment imposed by the state court — including, in one of the cases — the imposition of the death penalty. These two cases were decided (i) early in the court’s Term, (ii) unanimously, and (iii) by per curiam (unsigned) opinions — all indicia of cases that were relatively easy to decide. That ease is the result of the AEDPA statute.

The first of the two cases, Kernan v. Cuero involved a withdrawn guilty plea and the application of California’s “three strikes law” — a law that mandates a minimum prison sentence of 25 years upon conviction of a third qualifying felony.

The defendant Michael Cuero initially pleaded guilty under a plea agreement in which he admitted to one prior qualifying felony conviction — that is, one strike. After the trial court had accepted the plea agreement but before the sentencing hearing, the prosecution learned that a second of Cuero’s prior convictions qualified as a strike, thus rendering the felony charge Cuero now was facing a third strike.

Over Cuero’s objection, the trial court granted the prosecution’s motion to amend the criminal complaint to reflect this fact. Cuero eventually pleaded guilty to the amended complaint and received a sentence of 25 years to life.

Finding no relief in the California state court system, Cuero sought habeas review in federal court. A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted that relief, reasoning that “clearly established” federal law obligated the state to comply with the initial plea agreement. The Supreme Court reversed.

The court noted that it was assuming “purely for argument’s sake” that California somehow violated the federal Constitution by moving to amend the criminal complaint after the guilty plea. Even with this assumption, the Court found “several problems with the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning.”

First, the court faulted the Ninth Circuit for relying upon a point made in a concurring opinion in a 1971 Supreme Court case; the majority opinion in that case did not make that point, and subsequent court opinions disavowed the notion that view expressed in the concurring opinion constituted established law.

The court also chastised the Ninth Circuit for ignoring AEDPA’s clear language by relying on circuit precedent, “state-court decisions, treatises, [and] law articles” to determine clearly established federal law.

Even if Cuero was objectively an easy habeas case, the Supreme Court needed AEDPA’s limit on habeas review in order to be able quickly to resolve the other case. Dunn v. Madison raised the question of whether Vernon Madison, a state prisoner sentenced to death for murder, could still be executed if (because of medical problems that arose since his conviction) he no longer recalled the specifics of the crime of which he was convicted, but nevertheless did understand in general that the pending execution was imposed because of a murder he’d committed.

A divided Eleventh Circuit panel granted the defendant relief. The Supreme Court reversed. While acknowledging that earlier court precedent finding it unconstitutional to execute someone who lacks the “mental capacity to understand” that he is being “executed as a punishment for a crime,” the court reasoned that that holding was distinct from holding capital punishment constitutionally improper merely because a defendant no longer recalls the details of the crime for which he was convicted.

In other words, there was no clearly established law precluding execution of someone who lacked the capacity to remember the specifics of the crime for which the death penalty was imposed.

Concurring, Justice Ginsburg (joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor) highlighted the critical role that AEDPA played in the disposition of the case: “Appropriately presented, the issue would warrant full airing. But in this case, the restraints imposed by [AEDPA] . . . preclude consideration of the question.”

In short, these two early Supreme Court opinions from the October 2017 Term highlight the extent to which AEDPA fulfills its goal of limiting federal court review of state convictions. As the Madison case clearly demonstrates, AEDPA’s requirements are so stringent that they allow the Supreme Court to decide by unanimous per curiam opinion a habeas case.

Jonathan Nash is the Robert Howell Hall Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law. He specializes in the study of courts and judges, federal courts and federal jurisdiction, legislation and regulation, and environmental law. You can find him on twitter at @JonathanRNash. 

Tags Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act Bill Clinton Congress Supreme Court

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