« SCOTUS splits the difference for child porn restitution awards in Paroline | Main | Justice Department formally announces its clemency initiative plans and guidelines »

April 23, 2014

SCOTUS reinstates Kentucky death sentence based on AEDPA deference

Via a 6-3 opinion in White v. Woodall, No. 12-794 (Apr. 23, 2014) (available here), the Supreme Court this morning reversed a Sixth Circuit opinion reversing a Kentucky death sentence. Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion which starts and ends this way:

Respondent brutally raped, slashed with a box cutter, and drowned a 16-year-old high-school student. After pleading guilty to murder, rape, and kidnaping, he was sentenced to death. The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed the sentence, and we denied certiorari.  Ten years later, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted respondent’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus on his Fifth Amendment claim.  In so doing, it disregarded the limitations of 28 U.S.C. §2254(d) — a provision of law that some federal judges find too confining, but that all federal judges must obey. We reverse.

Because the Kentucky Supreme Court’s rejection of respondent’s Fifth Amendment claim was not objectively unreasonable, the Sixth Circuit erred in granting the writ.  We therefore need not reach its further holding that the trial court’s putative error was not harmless. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Breyer authored a joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, which starts this way:

During the penalty phase of his capital murder trial, respondent Robert Woodall asked the court to instruct the jury not to draw any adverse inferences from his failure to testify. The court refused, and the Kentucky Supreme Court agreed that no instruction was warranted. The question before us is whether the Kentucky courts unreasonably applied clearly established Supreme Court law in concluding that the Fifth Amendment did not entitle Woodall to a no-adverse-inference instruction.  See 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1).  In my view, the answer is yes.

April 23, 2014 at 10:37 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference SCOTUS reinstates Kentucky death sentence based on AEDPA deference :


"We therefore need not reach its further holding that the trial court’s putative error was not harmless."
And with those words the Supreme Court arrogantly dismisses any notion that Justice must be at the heart of the justice system in the US. It considers its own words unchallengable even when manifestly unreasonable in a specific instance of clear injustice and error.
Contemptible, no matter what the substance of the alleged crime.

Posted by: peter | Apr 23, 2014 12:51:43 PM


If an error is not of constitutional dimension then it correctly does not matter whether the offender was harmed by that error.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Apr 23, 2014 1:16:19 PM

The "Great Writ," of habeas corpus, the palladium of liberty, once again neutered by the AEDPA--an unforgivable monstrosity signed by Clinton). (along with the other two: the Marc Rich pardon; and the "depends on what the meaning of "is" is --or something like that)

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Apr 23, 2014 1:34:45 PM

Michael R. Levine,

How is it at all unreasonable for Congress to tell the federal courts that in order to grant a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner that the issue(s) raised must in fact be of federal constitutional law? Or that the Supreme Court is the only body capable of telling lower federal courts what issues actually make up that law?

As a silly example let us contemplate a courtroom where the windows are arranged so that the prosecution is framed by a beam of sunlight each day, and the defendant's table never is. Let us further contemplate research showing that people have an unconscious positive bias toward people lit in this manner. Given the current state of the federal judiciary I would not be at all surprised if some offender (since habeas isn't reached without a conviction my choice here is deliberate) were to win on such an argument. Even crediting that the research were valid I still don't see that the federal courts should be upsetting state convictions on such grounds. ADEPA simply attempts to formalize the protection due state convictions.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Apr 23, 2014 4:36:47 PM

Given that, historically, a conviction itself was enough to ensure that the person was being held lawfully (so that the current writ is an expanded form), I'm fine with AEDPA in theory. I think it's a bad law that basically allows states to turn a blind eye to Constitutional violations knowing that the odds are they won't be called on it because the Supreme Court handles too few cases. I think District Courts are better able to supervise state courts than the US Supreme Court. But I do think the law is constitutional.

Given how the deck is stacked, I think reasonable minds can differ on whether the Supreme Court made the right call here. I do think Estelle's language strongly points to the Griffin rule being extended to sentencing. That being said, I also would not be surprised if the current Court would limit the Griffin rule to some degree in sentencing so, while I think the weight of authority is in favor of the Sixth Circuit, I'm not convinced that it is so clearly established that the Supreme Court would feel compelled to overrule a case in order to come up with the same result as the state court did. Given this, it's probably the right call (as lukewarm in support as that is).

Posted by: Erik M | Apr 23, 2014 4:47:05 PM

"Or that the Supreme Court is the only body capable of telling lower federal courts what issues actually make up that law?"

The USSC takes a few criminal law cases a year. There are loads of nuances here. It is problematic to -- if you are going to provide for lower federal courts to have the broad power to decide these questions (they need not -- it can be left to state courts with an appeal to the USSC and the federal courts used to have much more limited jurisdiction over criminal cases) -- not let the nuances of the law develop in the lower courts as applied to specific matters. There is an argument to be made (and was by a few judges) that IF you provide the discretionary review to lower courts allowed here, "judicial power" is being illegitimately burdened here.

I have been told by those who do this thing for a living the whole thing also provides a lot of confusion to determine what "clear" and so forth means.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 23, 2014 6:02:55 PM

Anyway, if "the palladium of liberty" is threatened here it is simply not in the same class as a legalistic defense in personal lawsuit, and it truly cheapens your concern for such an alleged threat to a basic civil liberty to put that in the same comment. The citation to his pardon decision also is misplaced.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 23, 2014 6:09:04 PM

Soronel, I think that Erik M best answers your question to me when he writes, " I think it's a bad law that basically allows states to turn a blind eye to Constitutional violations knowing that the odds are they won't be called on it because the Supreme Court handles too few cases." Under the AEDPA, the federal courts are letting the states get by with serious errors that promote injustice. It's almost back to the time of Frank v. Mangum, where the Supreme Court said it was powerless to correct the Georgia jury's conviction of Leo Frank even though the trial was conducted in a courtroom of howling anti-Semites. After the Georgia governor, in an act of supreme courage, granted Frank a new trial, Frank was lynched by the the mob of ignorant bastards, not one of whom was ever arrested or punished. Of course 50 years later, Frank was later pardoned by the State of Georgia--after it was established that Frank was entirely innocent---. That's part of the reasons I I feel as I do.

Joe, I was just venting about Clinton in general, who let the possibility of greatness slip away because, like all of us, he was just human and deeply flawed.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Apr 23, 2014 7:05:24 PM

This is another dispiriting case under the AEDPA, which tolerates this: it's wrong, we know it's wrong, but what we're sayin' is that it isn't so bad wrong that now we have to do right. How could that be explained to a normal person, that this is what the law is?

Posted by: Robert L. Abell | Apr 24, 2014 1:01:01 PM

Michael, I disagree. Pre-AEDPA made the federal court superior to state courts. While I agree that the reconstruction era did the right thing in allowing federal courts to intervene when state courts ignored the Constitution, AEDPA says that -- on unresolved issues -- the state courts' opinions on the meaning of the Constitution are just as valid as the opinions of the federal courts.

While perhaps not tons of successful habeas petitions (as there should not be if state courts are acting appropriately), there are some cases in which the inmate wins every year.

For those of us who practice in state courts, most state court judges are conscientious and try to reach the right result. When the U.S. Supreme Court actually takes a case on direct review, state courts fair just about as well as federal appeals court in terms of having gotten the constitutional issue right. When the state courts are wrong, they are often wrong for having read the Constitution as giving more rights than the Supreme Court believes the Constitution does.

Posted by: tmm | Apr 24, 2014 1:43:17 PM

After Teague, you can't win a new issue on Habeas because it isn't retroactive. The difference is the degree of deference to state courts. Now, a state court decision could be wrong and completely unreasonable based on binding Circuit precedent, but it'll be upheld because it isn't completely unreasonable based on Supreme Court precedent. In fact, every other jurisdiction but the Supreme Court could have decided the issue the other way but, as long as they all thought it was a close case and the Supreme Court hasn't taken the issue, it'll be affirmed.

I don't see why state courts need that much protection for what are wrong decisions.

Posted by: Erik M | Apr 24, 2014 1:53:06 PM

In my rant above, I mistakenly said that the governor of Georgia had granted Leo Frank a new trial after he was convicted of the murder of Mary Phagan and sentenced to death. In fact the governor (Mr. Stayton) commuted Frank's death sentence to life imprisonment. That commutation drove the good citizens of Georgia crazy, and the leading citizens of the town (who have streets named after them to this day) broke into the local jail and lynched Frank. As I said, not one of these gentleman was ever arrested, much less prosecuted although their identities were well known.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Apr 24, 2014 3:25:41 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