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November 16, 2015

Should SCOTUS deal with Johnson retroactivity through an original habeas petition?

The question in the title of this post should get habeas and/or sentencing geeks like me really excited, and I apologize in advance to everyone else.  But the question is on my mind and has me excited after reading this terrific (and lengthy) new PrawfBlawg post by Steve Vladeck titled "How an Obscure SCOTUS Procedure Can Solve AEDPA's Retroactivity Catch-22 (and a Growing Circuit Split)." The full post is today's must read for habeas and/or sentencing geeks, but the start and end of the effort should whet geeky appetites:

Thanks to Montgomery v. Louisiana, the retroactivity of new Supreme Court decisions is already an important part of the Court's current Term.  But as I explain in the post that follows, a new application pending before the Justices, In re Butler, raises a far more important retroactivity question, one that is already the subject of a 5-3 (and growing) circuit split, one that has an ever-shortening clock, and, most significantly, one that may only be definitively answerable if the Court does something it hasn't done in 90 years — issue an "original" writ of habeas corpus.

To unpack this dense but significant topic, Part I flags the origins of the problem — the restrictions on second-or-successive applications for post-conviction relief in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), and the Supreme Court's fractured 2001 interpretation of those provisions in Tyler v. Cain.  Part II turns to the current circuit split, which involves whether the Court's June decision in Johnson v. United States, which invalidated a provision of the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA), can be retroactively enforced in second-or-successive petitions.  Part III explains why that circuit split can't be resolved by the Supreme Court via certiorari — and why, instead, the best way for the Court to take up the Johnson question is through an "original" writ of habeas corpus in a case like Butler.  Finally, Part IV argues that the Court should use Butler not just to answer the Johnson question, but also to resolve the debate over Tyler, lest this exact same scenario repeat itself after the next Johnson-like ruling....

In a paper I wrote in 2011, I argued that there's actually a value in preserving the obscurity of the Supreme Court's original habeas jurisdiction — and that, if original writs became common, they'd lose their utility as a safety valve, since Congress would presumably also think to take away that authority as part of future jurisdiction-stripping initiatives.  But there's a difference between elusive remedies and illusory ones.  For two decades, we have labored under the fiction that AEDPA's gatekeeper provisions don't raise serious constitutional problems entirely because of this safety valve.  If, as a result of disuse, it turns out that the safety valve is sealed shut, then we can no longer dodge those constitutional questions.  Thus, although we may be in the midst of a perfect storm for retroactivity, a case like Butler may actually be the perfect vehicle for the Justices to remind themselves about their original habeas authority — and, in the process, to issue an opinion that dramatically reduces the need for such relief in future retroactivity cases.

November 16, 2015 at 04:53 PM | Permalink

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