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June 12, 2017

In summary reversal, SCOTUS holds AEDPA precluded federal court from finding Virginia's geriatric release system was insufficient to comply with Graham

One may need to be a hard-core law-geek to fully appreciate all the nuance that it is in the title of this post, which aspires to be an accurate accounting of the Supreme Court's decision six-page per curiam decision this morning in Virginia v. LeBlanc, No. 16–1177 (S. Ct. June 12, 2017) (available here).  Here are excerpts from the heart of the opinion:

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit erred by failing to accord the state court’s decision the deference owed under AEDPA. Graham did not decide that a geriatric release program like Virginia’s failed to satisfy the Eighth Amendment because that question was not presented. And it was not objectively unreasonable for the state court to conclude that, because the geriatric release program employed normal parole factors, it satisfied Graham’s requirement that juveniles convicted of a nonhomicide crime have a meaningful opportunity to receive parole. The geriatric release program instructs Virginia’s Parole Board to consider factors like the “individual’s history . . . and the individual’s conduct . . . during incarceration,” as well as the prisoner’s “inter-personal relationships with staff and inmates” and “[c]hanges in attitude toward self and others.” See 841 F. 3d, at 280–281 (Niemeyer, J., dissenting) (citing Virginia Parole Board Policy Manual 2–4 (Oct. 2006)).  Consideration of these factors could allow the Parole Board to order a former juvenile offender’s conditional release in light of his or her “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Graham, 560 U.S., at 75. The state court thus did not diverge so far from Graham’s dictates as to make it “so obvious that . . . there could be no ‘fairminded disagreement’” about whether the state court’s ruling conflicts with this Court’s case law. White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 11).

“Perhaps the logical next step from” Graham would be to hold that a geriatric release program does not satisfy the Eighth Amendment, but “perhaps not.” 572 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 11). “[T]here are reasonable arguments on both sides.” Id., at ___–___ (slip op., at 11–12).  With respect to petitioners, these include the arguments discussed above. Supra, at 4. With regards to respondent, these include the contentions that the Parole Board’s substantial discretion to deny geriatric release deprives juvenile nonhomicide offenders a meaningful opportunity to seek parole and that juveniles cannot seek geriatric release until they have spent at least four decades in prison.

These arguments cannot be resolved on federal habeas review.  Because this case arises “only in th[at] narrow context,” the Court “express[es] no view on the merits of the underlying” Eighth Amendment claim. Woods, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 7) (internal quotation marks omitted).  Nor does the Court “suggest or imply that the underlying issue, if presented on direct review, would be insubstantial.” Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (per curiam) (slip op., at 7); accord, Woodall, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 5). The Court today holds only that the Virginia trial court’s ruling, resting on the Virginia Supreme Court’s earlier ruling in Angel, was not objectively unreasonable in light of this Court’s current case law.

A proper respect for AEDPA’s high bar for habeas relief avoids unnecessarily “disturb[ing] the State’s significant interest in repose for concluded litigation, den[ying] society the right to punish some admitted offenders, and intrud[ing] on state sovereignty to a degree matched by few exercises of federal judicial authority.” Harrington, supra, at 103 (internal quotation marks omitted).  The federalism interest implicated in AEDPA cases is of central relevance in this case, for the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit’s holding created the potential for significant discord in the Virginia sentencing process. Before today, Virginia courts were permitted to impose — and required to affirm — a sentence like respondent’s, while federal courts presented with the same fact pattern were required to grant habeas relief.  Reversing the Court of Appeals’ decision in this case — rather than waiting until a more substantial split of authority develops — spares Virginia courts from having to confront this legal quagmire.

Justice Ginsburg wrote a separate concurrence in LeBlanc to make this point:

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010)
, as today’s per curiam recognizes, established that a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide offense must have “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release [from prison] based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id., at 75. See ante, at 2.  I join the Court’s judgment on the understanding that the Virginia Supreme Court, in Angel v. Commonwealth, 281 Va. 248, 704 S.E.2d 386 (2011), interpreted Virginia law to require the parole board to provide such a meaningful opportunity under the geriatric release program.  See id., at 275, 704 S.E.2d, at 402 (“the factors used in the normal parole consideration process apply to conditional release decisions under this statute”).  In other words, contrary to the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation of Virginia law, the parole board may not deny a juvenile offender geriatric release “for any reason whatsoever,”  841 F.3d 256, 269 (2016) (emphasis in original); instead, the board, when evaluating a juvenile offender for geriatric release, must consider the normal parole factors, including rehabilitation and maturity.  See ante, at 4.

June 12, 2017 at 09:59 AM | Permalink


Not too surprising given that case is on habeas review. I know that there are some splits out there on the "de facto" life without claim implicit in this case. When will the Supreme Court take one of those on direct review to resolve what qualifies as no meaningful opportunity for release -- parole eligibility at 55? at 65? at 75? after twenty years? thirty years? fifty years?

Posted by: tmm | Jun 12, 2017 10:46:39 AM

We shall see if Ohio v Moore is granted in the next few months.

Posted by: Andrew | Jun 12, 2017 11:41:59 AM

Horse puckey.

English translation.

We are too lazy and ignorant to do our jobs and actually look at the facts of each case and render a fair and reasonable decision based on Our Constitution.

It's also very funny when the state dares to talk about finality in court decisions. Just shows what dishonest two-part traitors they are. Just where is that finality in a court decision when it comes to the state and its legal contracts involving sex crimes convictions. Re-read little shots have no problem tossing every one of them up in the air and illegally changing them every 6-8 months when the new crop of criminal stupidity in sex crimes laws come out.

Sorry you don't get to have it both way. If you want FINALITY then guess what. Weber sex crime law you have all passed since 2002 now only legally applies to convictions dated AFTER its passage as originally required by our Constitution

Posted by: rodsmith3510 | Jun 12, 2017 12:01:09 PM

The 'rat judge Wynn got it wrong--in the face of a dissent by a Republican appointee. Since this was an AEDPA screw-up, it shows that "Judge" Wynn is too dumb (or too ideological) to understand that Graham doesn't dictate the result Wynn wanted.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 12, 2017 3:12:12 PM

Ha ha ha ha ha---none of the libs in here care to defend Wynn, the 'rat judge?

Posted by: federalist | Jun 13, 2017 7:57:10 AM


Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

The 'rat judge should have listened to me.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 13, 2017 8:15:35 AM

I am curious your take, Doug---why does this appear to be a problem of Dem appointees?

Posted by: federalist | Jun 13, 2017 9:42:03 AM

What is the "problem," federalist, not following AEDPA because of wanting to give state criminal defendants more protection that AEDPA permits? I assume this is because Dem appointees, as a general matter, are more inclined to be concerned with the constitutional rights of criminal defendants AND they struggle when they think a state defendant's rights have been violated but still have to reject a claim because of AEDPA limits.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 13, 2017 8:29:46 PM

What is the problem? Are you serious? Judges are supposed to uphold the law. AEDPA prescribes a certain standard for reviewing habeas claims, and Dem appointees seem to have a problem with following the standard. Dressing this up as more concern for constitutional rights excuses the errors. I am just as concerned (perhaps more) with constitutional rights of defendants as any 'rat judge--I just have different views of what constitutes a constitutional right.

Please clarify your views--I cannot believe that you think that fudging the AEDPA standard is ok.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 14, 2017 10:14:23 AM

I was trying to clarify what you were calling a "problem," not saying that it was not a problem, federalist. I do not think fudging AEDPA is proper, but I do understand why and how judges struggle with AEDPA limits because it requires them to show a kind of deference to an opinion they think wrong. (I think we see the same kind of problem/pattern in qualified immunity cases and other settings in which judges are, by law, forced to essentially uphold a government action that "was not wrong enough.")

I once heard a prominent district judge say in an open forum that, for judges at sentencing, it would not make any different whether facts were to be found by a preponderance or BRD because once a judge reaches a conclusion about a matter, then the judge feels conclusive about that matter. Ergo, I surmise judges struggle with what AEDPA demands --- figuring out, even if a state judgment seems wrong, whether it was not wrong enough so as to preclude relief for the defendant.

I do not think this problem is about "dressing up" a concern for rights. I think it fair and accurate to say that federal judges in general, and perhaps Dem judges in particular, have a unique belief that they are uniquely able to protect the constitutional rights of the unpopular because they are not subject to elections and the same political pressures that many state judges face. This, in turn, can lead to the belief (and even hubris) that federal judges have to go to extra lengths to vindicate the rights of criminal defendants because state judges will not. In modern times, this belief can be overstated and can be problematic. But it is a belief based in both history and political structure that is yet another factor making AEDPA deference a challenge for federal judges.

Please understand, I agree with you that AEPDA is a law that all federal judges are duty-bound to follow. Moreover, I surmise they follow it and follow it well in 99 out of 100 cases. But that 1 out of 100 sketchy case always will stick in the craw of state officials, especially in capital cases, and thus we get the appeals that so often lead to SCOTUS summary reversals. And in trying to explain the forces that lead to that 1 out of 100 AEDPA problem-child case, I am not defending the failure to follow AEDPA. Rather, I am trying to account for the forces that lead to the problem you asked me to address.

Clear enough?

Posted by: Doug B | Jun 14, 2017 11:02:11 AM

Thank you for the clarification. It is remarkable that a prominent law professor would state openly that AEDPA deference (i.e., the law) is a "challenge" for federal judges (although it doesn't seem to be a challenge for Republican-appointed judges) due to the "hubris" of federal judges. I get that I am somewhat contentiously recapping what you wrote, but wow.

Wynn deserves a ton of criticism here--the standard is that the state law decision stands if it is not unreasonable. Wynn's inability to determine what is unreasonable (in the face of a well-reasoned dissent) seems problematic from a qualifications standpoint.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 14, 2017 12:25:12 PM

I am not sure what creates a "wow" here, federalist. The fact that SCOTUS has done many, many summary reversals to stress the need to show AEDPA deference seems to leave little doubt that following this standard is a challenge for federal judges. Is there any other conclusion to draw?

Meanwhile, in Wynn's case and others, you seem a bit too eager to suggest what is reasonable/unreasonable is obvious. Any and ever "unreasonableness" standard is necessarily opaque --- e.g., just look at circuit divisions over sentence review after Booker (or Fourth A jurisprudence) --- and that inherent opaqueness is what likely leads to different view of different judges. Those judges more concerned about defendant rights and less respectful of state adjudication will surely find less state rulings reasonable than those judges less concerned about defendant rights and more respectful of state adjudication. Heck, I think you would be inclined/eager to call Miller itself an "unreasonable" application of the Eighth Amendment, no?

Posted by: Doug B | Jun 14, 2017 1:58:32 PM

Your response leaves me even more dumbfounded. Wynn's opinion, in the face of a well-reasoned dissent, finds that the Virginia Supreme Court was unreasonable. You seem to suggest that the logical matter gets shaded by a judge's outlook and therefore the criticism is too strong. Huh?

With respect to the conclusion about the standard being a challenge--per curiam summary reversals mean that the lower court got it seriously wrong--and that means that your attempt to elide the problem as the "opaqueness" of the standard is weak. So either Wynn is incompetent or willful--which is it?

Miller is not "unreasonable" in the sense of logic--it is simply an unwarranted expansion that has no home in the Eighth Amendment.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 16, 2017 12:05:13 PM

federalist, I am not saying your criticism is too strong, but I am saying that for a "willful" federal judge --- here meaning one who feels strongly that state judges are too often too inclined to reject assertions of constitutional rights --- the meaning of whether constitutional law has been reasonably applied is one necessarily influenced by their own constitutional vision and commitments. This is not umpires calling balls and strikes, for if it was we could have computers do it better than humans.

What I find dumbfounding, federalist, is why you are surprised different judges with different views reach different conclusions. Whether it is the reach of the First Amendment or the Second Amendment or the Fifth Amendment or Sixth Amendment or Eighth Amendment or the applications and limits of AEDPA, judges have philosophies and attitudes that shape their decision-making in all sorts of obvious and not-so-obvious ways. It surely is bad when a decision leads to a summary reversal by SCOTUS, but that also happens at least a couple of times a year, no? Were circuit judges who rejected certain defense claims in favor of the feds after Booker in crack cases and were summary reversed being incompetent or willful? Are you arguing any and every jurist who gets summary reversed by SCOTUS should be taken off the bench?

Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 17, 2017 2:41:48 PM

First of all, Doug, getting it wrong (i.e., the Supreme Court decides something differently from the court of appeals) isn't necessarily an issue--Frye is wrongly decided. And I don't recall per curiam summary reversals for sentencing.

But in this particular case, Judge Wynn, in the face of a well-reasoned dissent said that the Supreme Court of Virginia was unreasonable. That's different from a disagreement on the First Amendment and everything else.

Wynn deserves a lot of criticism here. And I am not surprised that different views lead to different results---what does surprise me--after years of AEDPA per curiam reversals--many of which are quite pointed, Democrat judges still seem to be a problem.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 18, 2017 12:48:31 AM

federalist, I was thinking of Spears and Nelson, cases in which SCOTUS did a summary reversal for circuit failure to pay attention to Booker and Rita and Kimbrough.

And I get that you think AEDPA is different, in part because I suspect you are not a huge fan of habeas review and the work of federal courts parsing/second-guessing state criminal judgments. But, of course, even after AEPDA, federal courts have authority to parse/second-guess state criminal judgements. AEDPA arguably says do not second-guess those that could be called "reasonably wrong." My only point is that judges who believe it critical for federal courts to parse/second-guess state criminal judgments --- who may be Dems more than others --- may struggle the most with figuring out and having to show respect to "reasonably wrong" state court decisions.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 18, 2017 8:56:23 PM

"reasonably wrong"--in their view--often times, e.g., Bobby v. Bies, a 'rat judge will get it wrong on the merits.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 20, 2017 12:20:49 PM

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