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Metrish v. Lancaster, USSC No. 12-547, cert granted 1/18/13

Questions presented:

1. Whether the Michigan Supreme Court’s recognition that a state statute abolished the long-maligned diminished-capacity defense was an “unexpected and indefensible” change in a common-law doctrine of criminal law under this Court’s retroactivity jurisprudence. See Rogers v. Tennessee, 532 U.S. 451 (2001).

2. Whether the Michigan Court of Appeals’ retroactive application of the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision was “so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement” so as to justify habeas relief. Harrington v. Richter, 131 S. Ct. 770, 786-87 (2011).

Lower court opinion: Lancaster v. Metrish, 683 F.3d 740 (6th Cir. 2012)


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This is a federal habeas case from the Sixth Circuit, which granted relief to Lancaster, a state prisoner in Michigan. When Lancaster was tried in 1994 he presented defenses of insanity (which he later abandoned) and diminished capacity. He won a retrial in his first federal habeas proceeding, but by the time he was retried in 2005, the Michigan Supreme Court had concluded diminished capacity was not a defense under state law. People v. Carpenter, 627 N.W.2d 276 (Mich. 2001). The Sixth Circuit held that the retroactive application of Carpenter to Lancaster’s retrial violated due process under the standard from Rogers (which had upheld the retroactive application of the elimination of the common law “year and a day” rule in homicide cases).

The primary issue in the case is the ability of a state to abolish a common law defense and then keep a criminal defendant from raising that defense against acts occurring before the abolition, which may provide the occasion for the  Court to elaborate on Rogers. As for the diminished capacity defense in particular, Wisconsin does not recognize it. Steele v. State, 97 Wis. 2d 72, 294 N.W.2d 2 (1980). Thus, any commentary the Court might offer on that doctrine will not affect state practice.

The second issue relates to federal habeas cases, but instead of establishing a new rule the Court’s decision will likely just be another reminder to lower federal courts about how deferential habeas review must be to state court decisions. The Court has reversed Sixth Circuit habeas grants a number of times in the last few years, most recently in Parker v. Matthews, 132 S. Ct. 2148 (2012) (per curium), where the Sixth Circuit’s decision was characterized as “based on the flimsiest of rationales” and “a textbook example of what [AEDPA] proscribes….” The Court may particularly emphasize deference to state law, for the linchpin of the Sixth Circuit’s opinion is whether the state had recognized the diminished capacity defense. The state supreme court concluded diminished capacity had not been recognized as a defense separate from insanity since 1975, while a majority of the Sixth Circuit essentially did its own reading of state cases and concluded otherwise. As the dissenting Sixth Circuit judge points out, it is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions. Given the state court’s determination that diminished capacity was not an established defense, the dissent concluded its official elimination was foreseeable and so does not violate the rule of Rogers. The Supreme Court will probably agree.

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