« Editorial spotlights the modern politics of sentencing | Main | Pick your AG wannabe »

September 6, 2007

Amazingly interesting case for Fed Courts law geeks (like me)

Thanks to this post at SCOTUSblog, one can now access all the briefs filed in in Danforth v. Minnesota (06-8273).  Danforth is a fascinating case, to be argued before the Supreme Court on October 31, which addresses state courts' authority to apply retroactively Supreme Court criminal procedure rulings.  For lots of reasons beyond its argument date, Danforth should be spooky cool for true law geeks.

If you have a deep interest in Teague and retroactivity jurisprudence or Fed Courts and legal process issues, Danforth is surely one of the most interesting cases of the Term.  (But anyone not a true law geek may just get a headache from trying to figure out just what's really at issue in this case.)  One marker of this case's intrigue is this amicus brief from eight states filed not in support of either party.  Meanwhile, another amicus brief from another group of states backs Minnesota, and other friendly briefs from the ACLU and NACDL backs the defendant. 

The question presented in Danforth is pretty simple: "Are state courts required to use the standard announced in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), to determine whether decisions of this Court apply retroactively in state postconviction proceedings?"  But the briefs highlight how complicated the answer could become.

September 6, 2007 at 12:03 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Amazingly interesting case for Fed Courts law geeks (like me):


To me this seems to be a non-issue, b/c the Supremes can easily say, "They can use whatever standard they want, but if we say that a given rule is really big and therefore retroactive, it is retroactive."

In fact, I always assumed that the Kansas brief’s position was the law.

Of course, the Supreme Court could conclude that Crawford, in some cases is retroactive.

(I have a slight disagreement with one issue in the Kansas brief. I think there is a right to a state post-conviction proceeding if there is no federal proceeding available. But, I think that is more a matter of a rhetorical flourish than a misunderstanding of the law.)

Posted by: S.cotus | Sep 6, 2007 12:49:28 PM

The issue -- in practical terms -- is whether a State Court may hold, in a STATE habeas proceeding, that the rule announced in Crawford v. Washington applies retroactively to a final conviction, even though Teague would bar a federal court from granting relief to the defendant under the federal habeas statute.

The answer is yes. Even if the Supreme Court has the authority to say that certain decisions MUST be given retroactive effect, that does not mean the Court has the power to order states NOT to give federal decisions retroactive effect unless the SCOTUS says so. In other words, Teague establishes a floor, not a ceiling.

Posted by: Steve | Sep 6, 2007 3:56:33 PM

I'd assumed that the defendant's position was the law. Kansas appears to assert that a State could refuse to apply a retroactive rule in State post-conviction proceedings. Although such a habeas petitioner would be entitled to relief, the State petition would be denied, and the eventual remedy would be federal relief. Or so Kansas appears to assert.

More broadly, why is this a difficult qestion? Doesn't Erie and federalism generally forbid the Supreme Court from imposing substantive and procedural rules on the States, provided the underlying State procedures comply with the Constitution (including the Supremacy Clause)?

Posted by: Tim S | Sep 6, 2007 4:08:59 PM

I think that the first commenter has misread the Kansas brief. The State's position is that, in addition to being able to make retroactive rules that SCOTUS says are not, it is also free to do the opposite -- to disregard SCOTUS when it announces that a new rule should be retroactive. That is why Kansas agrees with neither party.

As for the merits, I found the petitioner's brief much more persuasive than Minnesota.

Posted by: MikeP | Sep 6, 2007 4:12:43 PM

Mikey, That is what I thought the KS brief said, and that is what I thought the law was.

Posted by: S.cotus | Sep 6, 2007 6:42:11 PM

Scotus -- I got you. In fact, that is not the law. State courts have to apply a new case retroactively if the Supreme Court says they do. T

Posted by: MikeP | Sep 6, 2007 8:06:02 PM

Kansas may have a point. The court has never articulated the constitutional basis for ordering STATE courts to give federal decisions any retroactive effect.

Posted by: Steve | Sep 6, 2007 10:11:58 PM

Mike, I said that, too. But, I don't think that, as a constitutional matter, there has ever been a rule of general application ever articulated for state courts according retroactive effect to classes of cases.

So, here are some hypos of my view:

Supremes say: "X is an unconstitutional law." States can and must figure out whether such a pronouncement has retroactive effect. They are not directly bound by T v. L.

Supremes say: "X is an unconstitutional law, and this has retroactive effect." States must accord it retroactive effect, simply because they said so.

Posted by: S.cotus | Sep 7, 2007 1:36:04 PM

If state courts aren't constitutionally obligated to afford direct or collateral review, how can they be "forced" by the Supreme Court to apply certain Supreme Court decisions retroactively?

Posted by: Steve | Sep 7, 2007 1:47:16 PM

Steve, That is my point. But, on the other hand, if they do provide that forum, and the Supremes DO say that something is retroactive, then they can't ignore such a pronouncement.

I have one exception to that rule... if, say, there were no form of federal habeas available b/c Congress did some freaky AEDPA stuff, I think that states would be obligated to provide a forum for prisoners that are imprisoned on now "invalid" convictions. But is is an ever murkier area for Fed. Cts. theory then is raised here.

Posted by: S.cotus | Sep 7, 2007 2:22:37 PM

But when the Scotus says one of its decisions applies retroactively, that governs (or should govern) only those FEDERAL courts inferior to the US Supreme Court. The Supremacy Clause alone does not justify or explain why the Court gets to force state appellate courts to apply a SCOTUS decision retroactively.

Look at a similar issue: what right does the Supreme COurt have in telling a state appellate court that it must review a trial court's findings on a suppression issue de novo? What clause gives the SCOTUS the right to prescribe standards of appellate review for state courts?

Posted by: Steve | Sep 7, 2007 3:44:35 PM

Steve, I don’t think your standard of review hypothetical is analogous. States don’t have to have any courts of appeal at all, yet alone de novo review of legal issues.

The way I see it, is that the Supremacy Clause applies to both the constitution and federal courts’ interpretation of it. If the Supreme Court says, “this rule requires means that everyone held on these charges is being held unconstitutionally and therefore illegally” then there must be retroactive effect. Any state court that hears a challenge to confinement must look at the constitution, and therefore must look at what the Supreme Court says it means.

But, since retroactive effect of SCOTUS decisions is rare, we rarely get to explore the permutations of this issue. And we rarely have supreme court decisions that strike down criminal statutes as being so unconstitutional that it was unconstitutional to even start the de-freedomizing process.

Posted by: S.cotus | Sep 7, 2007 3:59:25 PM


My standard of review hypothetical is spot on: the US Supreme Court has held, as a matter of federal constitutional law, that state appellate courts reviewing suppression rulings must apply de novo review. While the Supreme Court has the authority to review a state court's determination of a 4th amendment issue, why is the Court authroized to tell the State court under what standard it must review a defendant's claim?

Posted by: Steve | Sep 7, 2007 8:44:33 PM

Federal due process requirements.

Posted by: DP | Sep 8, 2007 10:32:34 AM

"federal due process requirements" -- that's a wonderfully scholarly answer.

I guess the Supreme Court could tell state courts to eliminate summary judgment motions in civil rights cases, too.

Posted by: Steve | Sep 8, 2007 2:21:04 PM

Scholarly - and correct. It would violate the defendant's rights under the Due Process Clauses of the 5th and 14th Amendments for a state appellate court to consider his constituional claim under something other than de novo review. Those clauses require a full and fair review of federal constitutial issues, not just a rubber-stamp "abuse-of-discretion" standard.

Like that better?

Posted by: DP | Sep 8, 2007 5:07:07 PM

No I don't. State courts don't have to afford appellate review at all, according to the Supreme Court. So while they have to reach correct results when they entertain suppression issues, HOW they get to those results is not a question of federal constitutional magnitude. If a state court gets a suppression ruling wrong, there is always a petition for cert.

Posted by: Steve | Sep 8, 2007 8:53:25 PM

So becuase they don't have to provide appellate review at all, they can choose to provide it in a way that violates federal due process requirements? The latter doesn't follow the former.

Your statement, "HOW they get those results is not a question of federal constitutional magnitude," is not only just your opinion, it's wrong. There wouldn't be something constitutionally wrong with a state appellate court system with cases decided by coin flip? Or by a system in which white defendants win but black defendants lose?

Posted by: DP | Sep 9, 2007 4:58:32 PM

For some reason, in this debate, I really think we agree but keep talking over each other.

The Supreme Court has never said that an appellate court must provide de novo review of “factual” issues, but must adjudicate the legal issues – so much as they implicate the constitution – de novo. (Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a Supreme Court ruling which says that suppression based on state law issues – even illegality of the search -- must be reviewed de novo.) But this simply means that all judges are bound by the constitution, and can’t approve a lower court’s ruling based on deference if it would be unconstitutional to do so.

The same goes for whether there is “retroactive” effect. Suppose, the Supreme Court held that some types of searches were really egregious, and they also noted that any trial or conviction based upon them was invalid. Yes, any court that would therein review the validity of the conviction would have to accord it retroactive effect. To my knowledge, this has not happened. But, if it did happen, a state court couldn’t simply say, “It doesn’t matter whether the Supremes said that this was really something that should have retroactive effect, we will per se not accord it retroactive effect on state grounds.”

On the other hand, the Supreme Court has never said, “It is unconstitutional for a state court to not conduct X type of LEGAL analysis -- besides looking at the text of our opinions -- when determining whether one of our decisions is retroactive.”

Posted by: S.cotus | Sep 9, 2007 6:24:41 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB