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SCOTUS DIGs State’s petition challenging 7th Circuit grant of habeas relief

“DIGs” as in “dismisse[s] as improvidently granted,” that is, leaving the Seventh Circuit’s grant of habeas relief intact.

The case is Duncan v. Owens, USSC No. 14-1516 (dig that case number!). The issue (described here) was whether the Seventh Circuit “violated 28 U.S.C. § 2254 and a long line of this Court’s decisions by awarding habeas relief in the absence of clearly established precedent” from the Supreme Court. It was shaping up as another skirmish in the war over AEDPA’s rule that state court adjudications have to violate “clearly established” federal law. During that war the Court has repeatedly warned lower federal courts about “framing our precedents at such a high level of generality,” Nevada v. Jackson, 133 S. Ct. 1990, 1994 (2013) (per curiam), and thereby finding a violation of “clearly established law” even though the case under habeas review differs factually from the case establishing the law.

As noted in our post on its decision, the Seventh Circuit was attuned to the potential the State might claim it was framing precedent at too high a level of generality and that the Court precedent on which it relied was not factually identical to Owens’s case; but as the court pointed out (slip op. at 9-10), the precedent on which it relied established a clearly identifiable principle (guilty verdicts must be based on evidence introduced at trial), and in any event factual identity can’t be required. Based on Scotusblog’s preview and summary of the argument, it seems the Court decided that what actually happened in this case was too unclear to serve as a vehicle to clarify the “clearly established” law issue, or that any error clearly wasn’t harmless, or both, and that the better course was dismiss the cert grant. The upshot is that the Seventh Circuit’s grant of relief stands, and its reasoning—at least for now, and on the particular issue presented—survives.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Owen Healy January 25, 2016, 5:00 pm

    I really am baffled by this dismissal.

    It is true that the meaning of the trial judge’s statement explaining the verdict is kind of fuzzy. But that’s all the more reason to take the case, to clarify what kind of deference is owed the state appellate court in interpreting those ambiguous words.

    Basically there’s two ways to read the ambiguous words. Either the observation about the victim being a drug dealer is sort of an aside that the judge thinks is interesting enough to mention but doesn’t bear on the verdict, or it’s part of the reason the judge reached a guilty verdict. In the first case, clearly established violation of the law; in the second case, not clearly established violation of the law.

    You could infer from the state appellate court’s reasoning that they read the judge’s words the second way. Does the 7th circuit have to defer to that reading? That’s a real question.

    Emotionally, I am quite happy that the 7th Circuit’s decision stands, because it looks like there was about to be a serious miscarriage of justice in the state court. But legally, I just don’t understand it.

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