Another Habeas Slap-Down From the Supreme Court; Where Is Habeas Law Heading?

The Supreme Court summarily overturned yet another habeas grant earlier this week in Coleman v. Johnson (No. 11-1053).  Johnson was convicted in Pennsylvania state court as an accomplice and co-conspirator in a murder.  Without getting into all of the details, let’s just say that the state’s case against Johnson was circumstantial and something less than airtight.  Johnson thus sought to have his conviction overturned in state court on the ground that the evidence was insufficient to support the jury’s verdict, invoking Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979).  The state courts rejected this claim, as did a federal district court, but the Third Circuit reversed.

The Supreme Court overturned the Third Circuit’s decision in a brusque per curiam opinion.

The Court invoked the double-deference idea that it has used in other recent habeas cases:

We have made clear that Jackson claims face a high bar in federal habeas proceedings because they are subject totwo layers of judicial deference. First, on direct appeal, “it is the responsibility of the jury—not the court—to decide what conclusions should be drawn from evidence admitted at trial. A reviewing court may set aside the jury’s verdict on the ground of insufficient evidence only if no rationaltrier of fact could have agreed with the jury.” Cavazos v. Smith, 565 U. S. 1, ___ (2011) (per curiam) (slip op., at 1). And second, on habeas review, “a federal court may not overturn a state court decision rejecting a sufficiency of the evidence challenge simply because the federal court disagrees with the state court. The federal court instead may do so only if the state court decision was ‘objectively unreasonable.’” Ibid. (quoting Renico v. Lett, 559 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (slip op., at 5)).

Because the Court of Appeals failed to afford due respect to the role of the jury and the state courts of Pennsylvania, we now grant certiorari and reverse the judgment below.  (1-2)

Coleman is reminiscent of a number of other recent reversals of circuit court habeas grants (see, e.g., here).  These cases emphasize the high level of deference that must be shown by federal habeas courts, particularly in connection with Jackson claims and claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.

It is interesting and a little surprising that the Court has been taking cases like Coleman that don’t really present any significant legal questions, but that are more straight-ahead error-correction cases turning on the assessment of a particular set of facts.  The Court’s willingness to engage in such mundane error-correction seems to signal the importance to the Court of getting the lower federal courts to stop granting habeas relief, at least based on insufficient evidence or ineffective assistance.  The Court also seems to be sending a message by reversing through short per curiam opinions that seem openly dismissive of the lower courts’ reasoning.

All of this makes me wonder if the Court is effectively, if covertly, expanding the doctrine of Stone v. Powell, 428 U.S. 465 (1976), to new categories of constitutional claims.  Stone held, “[W]here the State had provided an opportunity for full and fair litigation of a Fourth Amendment claim, a state prisoner may not be granted federal habeas corpus relief on the ground that evidence obtained in an unconstitutional search or seizure was introduced at his trial.”  As a practical matter, Stone has blocked federal habeas courts from enforcing the Fourth Amendment.

Are Coleman and similar cases attempting to raise the same sort of absolute barrier to the enforcement of some other constitutional claims?  All other constitutional claims?

If the Supreme Court really is shutting down federal habeas, then it becomes all the more important for the Court to engage in vigorous direct oversight of the state courts by taking cases directly out of the state court systems.  When the Court expanded habeas in the Warren Court era, part of the justification was that the Court could not itself oversee the compliance of 50 state systems with constitutional requirements; federal district courts performing habeas review were then seen as stand-ins for the Supreme Court, helping to ensure more rigorous and uniform compliance with constitutional requirements than the Court could achieve on its own.

With federal habeas on a path to irrelevance, if it is not there already, the Court might maintain at least some of the benefits of habeas by taking more cases on direct review.  A model might be the Court’s January decision in Smith v. Cain, in which the Court — again, acting very much in an error-correction mode — directly took and overturned a state-court decision on Brady grounds.  One significant advantage of performing federal oversight through direct, rather than habeas, review is that the Court can thereby avoid all of the procedural nonsense of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which continues to occupy far too much of the Court’s limited criminal docket.

Cross posted at Life Sentences.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Nick Zales

    It is unfortunate that the court did not apply this deference to state court decisions when it decided Bush v. Gore. There, the court found the Florida Supreme Court was entitled to no deference at all. How does the court justify applying different rules of law in situations that are fundamentally the same? Either state court decisions are entitled to deference or they are not. When the court picks and chooses what amount of deference to pay state court decisions, it creates uncertainty at the least and displays hypocrisy at the most.

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