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US Supreme Court: Retroactive application of state court decision rejecting diminished capacity defense is not a basis for federal habeas relief

Linda Metrish, Warden v. Burt Lancaster, USSC 12-547, 5/20/13

United States Supreme Court decision, reversing Lancaster v. Metrish, 683 F.3d 740 (6th Cir. 2012)

In a unanimous opinion issued only a month after oral argument, the Supreme Court holds that a state prisoner is not entitled to federal habeas relief based on the retroactive application of a state supreme court decision holding there is no diminished capacity defense under state law.

Michigan’s intermediate appellate courts had repeatedly recognized the diminished capacity defense before Lancaster committed the crime in this case, and he had raised the defense in his first trial in 1994. He won a new trial, but by the time he was retried in 2005 the state supreme court had decided that the defense was precluded under statutes enacted in 1975, well before Lancaster’s conduct. (Slip op. at 2-3, 8-11). Thus, Lancaster was not allowed to raise the defense at his retrial. (Slip op. at 3). After unsuccessful state appeals, Lancaster was granted habeas relief by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Slip op. at 3-4). That court held the retroactive application of the state supreme court’s decision violated due process, relying on Rogers v. Tennessee, 532 U.S. 451 (2001), and Bouie v. City of Columbia, 378 U.S. 347 (1964).

The Supreme Court now holds that the retroactive application of the decision abrogating the defense was not, as required under AEDPA, an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent:

This Court has never found a due process violation in circumstances remotely resembling Lancaster’s case—i.e., where a state supreme court, squarely addressing a particular issue for the first time, rejected a consistent line of lower court decisions based on the supreme court’s reasonable interpretation of the language of a controlling statute. Fairminded jurists could conclude that a state supreme court decision of that order is not “unexpected and indefensible by reference to [existing] law.” Rogers, 532 U. S., at 462 (internal quotation marks omitted). Lancaster therefore is not entitled to federal habeas relief on his due process claim. (Slip op. at 15).

The result here isn’t too surprising, given both the high hurdle erected by AEDPA and the paucity of clear precedent from the Court about retroactive application of state court interpretations of statutory language that affect the coverage of, or defenses to, state criminal statutes. The Court’s application of the habeas standards do not establish any new rule or doctrine, nor does the Court shed any real light on the central substantive issue of retroactive application of state court decisions–no doubt because the case came to the Court as a habeas grant, and habeas is about the application of clearly established law, not establishment of the law itself. The Court does, however, discuss Rogers  and Bouie, two key decisions on retroactive application of new interpretation of state statutes. (Slip op. at 5). That discussion (slip op. at 13-14) may give some slight guidance for dealing with this issue in the future.

In Bouie, the defendants were convicted under the state supreme court’s expansive new interpretation of a trespass statute in a case decided after the defendants were arrested. 378 U.S. at 348-50. Stressing that the interpretation of the statue was “clearly at variance with the statutory language” and “ha[d] not the slightest support” in prior court decisions, the Court held that applying “an unforeseeable and retroactive judicial expansion of narrow and precise statutory language” to the defendants prior conduct violated Due Process. Id. at 352, 355-56. In Rogers, by contrast, the abolition of the “year and a day” rule was not “unexpected and indefensible” in light of the law in effect prior to the defendant’s conduct because the the rule was “widely viewed as an outdated relic of the common law” and had been “legislatively or judicially abolished in the vast majority of jurisdictions that had addressed the issue.” 532 U.S. at 462-63. Also, the rule had “only the most tenuous foothold” in the state, having been mentioned in dicta in only three cases. 532 U.S. at 464.

This case falls between Bouie and Rogers. The Court says it “is a far cry from Bouie,” which involved an unexpected expansion of “narrow and precise statutory language” that, as written, did not reach the petitioners’ conduct; by contrast, the decision applied to Lancaster reasonably disapproved lower-court precedent recognizing a defense the state supreme court found to lack statutory grounding after a “close inspection” of “a comprehensive, on-point statute.” (Slip op. at 13). At the same time, Lancaster’s claim “is arguably less weak” than the one in Rogers because the diminished capacity defense is not an outdated, widely rejected common law relic, but was recognized repeatedly by the state’s lower appellate courts and in the state’s pattern jury instructions. (Slip op. at 13-14). Maybe those factors would have been more compelling in a direct appeal to the Court, but they are not sufficient to warrant federal habeas relief under 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1)’s demanding standard.

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