AEDPA smites Hercules (again)

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) authorizes a federal habeas court to grant  relief to a prisoner whose state court conviction “involved an unreasonable application of . . . clearly established  Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). It is settled that  a federal habeas court may overturn a state court’s application of federal law only if it is so erroneous that “there  is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court’s decision conflicts with this Court’s precedents.” Harrington v. Richter, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786 (2011).

At his rape trial, the defendant unsuccessfully sought to introduce evidence for the purpose of showing that the rape victim previously reported that he had assaulted her but that the police had been unable to substantiate those allegations.  The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed.  Applying the deferential standard of review under AEDPA, the federal district court denied habeas relief.   In a split decision, the Ninth Circuit, behaving more like Hercules than an umpire, decided that the Nevada Supreme Court and the district court got it wrong.   Finding no Supreme Court case clearly on point, the Ninth Circuit applied its own precedents to unearth clearly established law that was violated by the rulings below.  On June 3, 2013, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion reversing the Ninth Circuit.  See Nevada v. Jackson, No. 12–694, 569 U. S. ____ (2013).

Image credit:  Abu-Simbel-Rameses-smite-Cherubini per

Image credit: Abu-Simbel-Rameses-smite-Cherubini per

When it comes to AEDPA, federal habeas corpus actions and federal trial judges, the Court has again made it plain (for the umpteenth time) that there is no place for Hercules, the all-knowing judge who seeks “justice” no matter the situation. For those of us who believe ourselves far better equipped to apply rules rather than divining abstract notions of injustice, that is a great comfort.


3 responses

  1. So what do you think of the frequent, now predictable summary reversals of 9th (and now almost as often, 6th) Circuit federal habeas decisions by the Supreme Court, usually because the court of appeals did not give the state court decision appropriate deference (or, as here, applied its own habeas precedent to find the state court judgment an “unreasonable application of . . . federal law”)? Do you think the standards are too harsh, or do you think the Supreme Court is right to tell courts of appeals that, even if they think the outcome was incorrect, unless there is a factually or legally unreasonable reason why that decision was incorrect it stands? Is it just a case of the courts of appeals going too far in a very deferential statutory scheme?

    (Obviously the Court is “right” to tell COAs that because it is what AEDPA says, but I’m more curious of the views of a federal district judge, particularly in a Circuit that seems not to have such frequent habeas reversals.)

  2. Ryan,

    I have two reactions to your questions. First, AEDPA means what is says. Unless the state court decision is unmistakably wrong in light of Supreme Court precedent, there can be no error that justifies habeas relief on legal grounds. Second, given our republican form of government that allocates to the states a sovereignty that must be respected except when a state acts in a manner inconsistent with the national Constitution, federal habeas relief ought to be very rare. Federal trial judges were never meant to correct mere errors of their state counterparts.

    More important than what I think, the Supreme Court has clearly provided the foregoing as a role definition for federal trial judges in the habeas corpus context. In that respect, I think the Justices are correct, and I very much appreciate their focus on rules rather than abstractions.

    All the best.


  3. A couple of things: first, I’m still having trouble with the defendant’s apparent defense: “I beat the rap the first time, therefore I must be innocent this time?” His lawyer argued that with a straight face, or was he defending himself?

    Second, …the Supreme Court is right to tell courts of appeals that, even if they think the outcome was incorrect, unless there is a factually or legally unreasonable reason why that decision was incorrect it stands[.] I wish all judges, including the original trial court judges and the Supreme Court Justices, acted in this fashion. The laws, including the supreme Law of the Land, the Constitution, need to be applied as they are written, not in the way a judge thinks it ought to have been written, not from a judge’s “modern interpretation” of the law, not from….

    The Constitution provides, in several places, and very clearly, that making law, modifying law, amending the Constitution, are solely the role of the people, generally through their elected representatives, and in no way the role of the judiciary.

    Yes, that will occasionally lead to absurd results, but I submit at a far lower rate than the absurdities we’ve been getting out of our courts since FDR successfully packed the Supreme Court. And probably long before then.

    Eric Hines

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