A recent unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling has underscored the limits of habeas corpus as a remedy for state prisoners, according to Michael C. Dorf, professor of law at Cornell University.
The court in Metrish v. Lancaster refused relief for a man convicted of murder; despite the fact that justices knew Michigan courts violated his constitutional right to due process.Lancaster admitted he committed murder but used a diminished capacity defense that was on the books at the time to negate specific intent. However, counsel for the defendant was prevented from arguing it at trial.
The Michigan Supreme Court upheld the lower courts’ rulings, so he took the case to federal court.
“The U.S. Court of Appeal for the Sixth Circuit found his argument compelling,” according to Dorf, and ordered habeas relief. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the ruling, reinstating Lancaster’s conviction.
In two previous rulings, the court’s evaluation of retroactivity was upheld in one case but not the other.
In a 1964 case, Bouie v. City of Columbia, the court held that due process forbade a state from retroactively applying a statute.
Thirty-seven years later, in Rogers v. Tennessee, the court permitted the retroactive refusal to apply a common law rule.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg who wrote the court’s opinion said, “Taking away the diminished capacity defense after the fact is more like a due process violation than the non-violation found in Rogers, but less like a due process violation than the violation found in Bouie.”
In other words, Lancaster’s conviction was like a due process violation but not enough to matter, Dorf concludes. Pundits, who have observed long-term trends on the Court, were surprised by this recent unanimous decision.
Dorf said, “In deference to the supposed good faith of the state courts, the statute and the relevant precedent say that state courts need only try to apply the rules that were on the books at the time of the state court proceedings.”
He continued, “So long as there is room for a reasonable disagreement, then the Michigan courts refusal to find a due process violation in Lancaster’s could not be deemed unreasonable.”
Federal courts were reluctant to grant relief – even a flawed one, so long as the state court had proper jurisdiction over the case.
According to Dorf, there are three reasons the U.S. Supreme Court made this decision, even if Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act justified its ruling
First, he contends, “Politicians at every level and in both major parties have little to lose by being tough on crime. Republicans and Democratic politicians have mostly concluded that there is no political angle for them in supporting civil liberties for criminal defendants.”
Secondly, he said, “That attitude has seeped into the judiciary, including Democratic appointees.”
After all, it was Justice Ginsberg, a President Clinton appointee, who argued that the Michigan courts’ decision on Lancaster’s due process violation was not “unreasonable.”
“It is nearly impossible to imagine a similar opinion being written by any of the earlier generation of liberal Justices,” said Dorf. “They appeared to think that the constitutional right to habeas corpus extends to collateral review of state court convictions.
Even though his third reason is highly speculative, Dorf said, “it is possible that the court’s unanimous willingness to interpret the habeas rights of state prisoner narrowly arises out of the Bush/Obama detention policies.”