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May 17, 2021

By 6-3 vote, SCOTUS in Edwards v. Vannoy rewrites Teague to say all new procedural rules not retroactive in federal habeas

The Supreme Court this morning handed down an opinion in Edwards v. Vannoy, No. 19–5807 (S. Ct. May 17, 2021) (available here), which holds that the "Ramos jury-unanimity rule ... does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review." Justice Kavanaugh wrote the opinion for the Court, and it starts this way:

Last Term in Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. ___ (2020), this Court held that a state jury must be unanimous to convict a criminal defendant of a serious offense.  Ramos repudiated this Court’s 1972 decision in Apodaca v. Oregon, 406 U.S. 404, which had allowed non-unanimous juries in state criminal trials.  The question in this case is whether the new rule of criminal procedure announced in Ramos applies retroactively to overturn final convictions on federal collateral review.  Under this Court’s retroactivity precedents, the answer is no.

This Court has repeatedly stated that a decision announcing a new rule of criminal procedure ordinarily does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review.  See Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 310 (1989) (plurality opinion); see also Linkletter v. Walker, 381 U.S. 618, 639–640, and n. 20 (1965).  Indeed, in the 32 years since Teague underscored that principle, this Court has announced many important new rules of criminal procedure.  But the Court has not applied any of those new rules retroactively on federal collateral review.  See, e.g., Whorton v. Bockting, 549 U.S. 406, 421 (2007) (Confrontation Clause rule recognized in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), does not apply retroactively).  And for decades before Teague, the Court also regularly declined to apply new rules retroactively, including on federal collateral review.  See, e.g., DeStefano v. Woods, 392 U.S. 631, 635 (1968) (per curiam) (jury-trial rule recognized in Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968), does not apply retroactively).

In light of the Court’s well-settled retroactivity doctrine, we conclude that the Ramos jury-unanimity rule likewise does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review.  We therefore affirm the judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Notably, the Edwards Court here goes beyond saying that it refuses yet again to find a procedure to meet the "watershed" exception to the retroactivity limits in Teague, it says there is no longer to be such an (hypothetical) exception:

At this point, some 32 years after Teague, we think the only candid answer is that none can—that is, no new rules of criminal procedure can satisfy the watershed exception. We cannot responsibly continue to suggest otherwise to litigants and courts.... It is time — probably long past time — to make explicit what has become increasingly apparent to bench and bar over the last 32 years: New procedural rules do not apply retroactively on federal collateral review. The watershed exception is moribund. It must “be regarded as retaining no vitality.” Herrera v. Wyoming, 587 U.S. ___, ___ (2019) (slip op., at 11)(internal quotation marks omitted).

Justice Kagan authors the dissent (joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor), and its starting passage concludes this way:

The majority cannot (and indeed does not) deny, given all Ramos said, that the jury unanimity requirement fits to a tee Teague’s description of a watershed procedural rule.  Nor can the majority explain its result by relying on precedent.  Although flaunting decisions since Teague that held rules non-retroactive, the majority comes up with none comparable to this case.  Search high and low the settled law of retroactivity, and the majority still has no reason to deny Ramos watershed status.

So everything rests on the majority’s last move — the overturning of Teague’s watershed exception.  If there can never be any watershed rules — as the majority here asserts out of the blue — then, yes, jury unanimity cannot be one.  The result follows trippingly from the premise.  But adopting the premise requires departing from judicial practice and principle.  In overruling a critical aspect of Teague, the majority follows none of the usual rules of stare decisis.  It discards precedent without a party requesting that action.  And it does so with barely a reason given, much less the “special justification” our law demands.  Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., 573 U.S. 258, 266 (2014).  The majority in that way compounds its initial error: Not content to misapply Teague’s watershed provision here, see ante, at 10–14, the majority forecloses any future application, see ante, at 14–15.  It prevents any procedural rule ever — no matter how integral to adjudicative fairness — from benefiting a defendant on habeas review.  Thus does a settled principle of retroactivity law die, in an effort to support an insupportable ruling.

May 17, 2021 at 10:22 AM | Permalink


The idea that Ramos is not to be given retroactive effect is a huge travesty of justice. Oregon is going to keep hundreds of people convicted by 10-2 jury votes in prison. Makes my stomach turn.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | May 17, 2021 11:46:08 AM

Interesting how the Kagan (who dissented silently in Ramos) wrote the dissent here -- she explains she dissented there to protect stare decisis.

She adds that Ramos was in part framed as a racial justice case [given the facts, I think she could have concurred in judgment on that grounds given the special circumstances of the two states leaving open non-unanimous juries though that would leave the matter of Puerto Rico]. This might be a bit of a dig at Kavanaugh, who has repeatedly expressed a concern about racial justice issues in criminal justice cases.

Posted by: Joe | May 17, 2021 11:58:16 AM

Is that right? Searching turned up a news article (linked below) saying that Oregon is going to revisit 100s or maybe 1000s of such cases. Would that still leave anything unaddressed?


Obviously that does absolutely nothing for folks in La., but it's still significant at least.

Also, since "Edwards" in "Edwards Court" wasn't italicized, for a second I thought we had an abrupt, unannounced change in Chief Justices.

Posted by: hardreaders | May 17, 2021 12:07:40 PM

Easter egg -- the opinion attaches the confession (not totally sure why). You can view it -- the video is over an hour long -- here:


Posted by: Joe | May 17, 2021 4:17:11 PM

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