Friday, April 27, 2007

Back to Basics: AEDPA and Clearly Established Law (?)

Here is my favorite comment from the barrel over at Orin Kerr's post on this week's dp cases:

All Penry relief is collateral. If there is not something in Penry that is "clearly established," Penry has no meaning at all, since it is not a claim that can be asserted on direct review. Indeed, whatever you might "think" about the clarity of the law, the court has decided several penry cases under 2254. There is established law there. Maybe you agree with the variety of Supreme Court decisions to the contrary, but then you just don't really care about precedent and there's not much to say.

I wouldn't get too sidetracked about this "congress has no business" argument. That's just not the issue, and it would be a disservice to the majority to act like that is the holding.

The law here is close - but it's close on the question of what is clearly established. Yes, it is "confused," but not in the traditional sense that it is confused on the straight-up merits question.

People like Kent S. would like to have everyone believe that just because it is not clear what is clearly established, that this is sufficient ambiguity to bar relief. This is, of course, ridiculous. There's no logical limit if you are going to stack "clearlies." Does the law have to be clearly established, or does it have to be clear what is clearly established. How about clear about what is clear about what is clearly established.

The "mess" was all about what law was clearly established, so you can't circularly cite confusion as to what was clearly established as a reason for holding nothing is clearly established at all, if 2254(d)(1) is ever to mean anything.

Also, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is simply off the reservation. For those unfamiliar with the way they do business, it's a real eye-opener. I think the Fifth Circuit sometimes gets a bad rap because they're applying deference to a state court that already delivers the most lazy, cryptic criminal opinions in the country. All righteous anger about federal interference in state adjudication sounds truly absurd if you have state adjudications that lack any indicia of reliability.

AND HERE are some persuasive reasons why the dissent(s) are discombobulational:

[OK Comments: C.F.W., I don't understand this comment. So in your view, the Supreme Court's job is to follow statutes if and only if the Justices believe that Congress "has business" in passing the law? I suppose I'm not surprised that Roberts missed that.]

Roberts wrote a dissent, and knew how the AEDPA came about - from Lundgren in CA trying to work around 9th Circuit cases. The idea was to put a thumb on the scales of justice - in favor of death. A good federal courts professor would have given a C to a student who did not at least mention what is wrong (or questionable, and possibly unconstitutional) about the structure of the law - making the circuits and district courts irrelevant as creators of precedent.

cfw: how was it the "key point" in this case that "Congress has no business freezing the law as it was decided by a particular date by the USSCT"? This was pretty much a straightforward AEDPA case, whether you agree with AEDPA or not. In fact, I'm sure the majority would have gladly just ignored AEDPA if it could have, but so long as AEDPA is on the books and not ruled unconstitutional (which was certainly not at issue here), the Court has to abide by it. And so long as it has to abide by it, the majority opinion is awfully implausible.

The dissent is not persuasive unless it at least touches on the idea that telling judges what they can and cannot cite as precedent is unconstitutional (blurring lines between Article III and other parts of the US Const.). The dissent is materially incomplete, and the CJ knows it (from his days as an advocate - or assistant to advocates - in a DP case).

This may be getting just a bit cynical, but why doesn't congress just pass a law saying that only the Tennessee courts, or just pick any state, are the only courts from which precedent can be drawn? Then, of course, we'll pack the TN courts with Supreme Court level justices and "away we go" (Johnny lives on, or was that Jackie?).

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