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May 20, 2013

SCOTUS unanimously reverses habeas win for defendant based on state elimination of "diminished capacity" defense

Only a matter of weeks after it was argued, the Supreme Court this morning unanimously decided that the Sixth Circuit got a habeas issue wrong in Metrish v. Lancaster, No. 12-547 (S. Ct. May 20, 2013) (available here). Here is the start of the SCOTUS opinion, per Justice Ginsburg:

Burt Lancaster was convicted in Michigan state court of first-degree murder and a related firearm offense.  At the time the crime was committed, Michigan’s intermediate appellate court had repeatedly recognized “diminished capacity” as a defense negating the mens rea element of first-degree murder.  By the time of Lancaster’s trial and conviction, however, the Michigan Supreme Court in People v. Carpenter, 464 Mich. 223, 627 N.W. 2d 276 (2001), had rejected the defense.  Lancaster asserts that retroactive application of the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in Carpenter denied him due process of law.  On habeas review, a federal court must assess a claim for relief under the demanding standard set by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).   Under that standard, Lancaster may gain relief only if the state-court decision he assails “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by [this] Court.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).  We hold that Lancaster’s petition does not meet AEDPA’s requirement and that the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit erred in granting him federal habeas relief.

Absent something remarkable in the full opinion, I suspect it may prove to be more interesting (or at least more fun) to try to make jokes about the defendant's name in this case rather than to debate the ruling's enduring significance.

Lancaster is the only criminal justice ruling from the Supreme Court today, and I surmise from SCOTUSblog that the next decision day for the Court will be next Tuesday.  I am hopeful (but not optimistic) that the long holiday weekend will give the Justices a chance to finish off at least some of the notable criminal justices cases that we argued way back in January (Alleyne and Deschamps) and February (King and Peugh).  I am also I am hopeful (and a bit more optimistic) that the long holiday weekend will give me a chance to speculate about who may be authoring these opinions and why the are taking so long.

May 20, 2013 at 10:16 AM | Permalink


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You are being a bit rough on the Justices here Mr. Berman. They should not be hurried when they have thoughtful decisions to make.

Posted by: liberty1st | May 20, 2013 10:49:13 PM

Ha ha. Yet again, two Dem criminal-coddling nitwits on the bench are shown to be wrong by a dissenting judge appointed by a Republican president. Totally unsurprising to see Judge Clay getting it wrong once again. How many is this?

You know what I'd love to see---let's see all the libs in here defend Clay. How many times does this idiot criminal-coddler have to hook up a criminal in a lawless manner before we can just admit that the Democrat judges are the problem?

All the liberal Senators screamed bloody murder over "extremists" like William Pryor and others, but they don't have the record of nitwits like Clay, Paez and Barkett.

Posted by: federalist | May 21, 2013 1:26:30 AM

There is a curious underpinning to the decision. Decisions of the Michigan Court of Appeals are binding precedent unless overruled by the Michigan Supreme Court. Yet SCOTUS treats the law in this case, established by a Court of Appeals decision, as though it were not really binding. Fatal flaw in the logic.

Posted by: John Minock | May 22, 2013 6:58:27 AM

John, I don't know how well the inmate's attorneys and amicus briefed the issue of Michigan's own rules on the precedential nature of intermediate appellate decisions.

In most states, an intermediate appellate decision is, at most, binding on the intermediate appellate court and the lower court, but not on the state Supreme Court. Thus, since in this type of system, there is no final conclusive interpretation of the law until the state Supreme Court considers the issue, the first decision of the state Supreme Court can't be a change in the law.

Also of significance is that this is a habeas petition requiring that the state court's interpretation of US Supreme Court decisions be unreasonable. The US Supreme Court saw a colorable argument (adopted by the Michigan Court of Appeals in this case) that the Michigan Supreme Court decision was not the type of change in the law precluded by the rather vague standards found in the two previous U.S. Supreme Court cases on this type of issue.

Posted by: tmm | May 22, 2013 3:05:10 PM

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