Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996

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Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996

Roper v. Weaver

By a 6-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately dismissed its previously-granted writ of certiorari as "improvidently granted" in the case of Roper v. Weaver, No. 06-313, 550 U.S. ___ (2007). This case involved the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals' questionable granting of habeas corpus relief in light of previous precedent as well as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 110 Stat. 1214, 28 USC §2254.

As background, the AEDPA has a stated goal "to deter terrorism, provide justice for victims, provide for an effective death penalty, and for other purposes." By 'provid[ing] for an effective death penalty,' Congress intended to limit lengthy appeals that typically precede executions, to limit unwarranted federal intrusion into state criminal law, and to promote finality of state court decisions. Under AEDPA, federal courts cannot grant habeas relief in criminal cases unless the state court's decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States."

Shortly after granting certiorari and hearing oral arguments in the present case, the Supreme Court issued its per curiam decision(by the Court and not written by any particular justice), characterizing the issue before it as follows: "We grant certiorari in this case … to decide whether the Court of Appeals had exceeded its authority under 28 U.S.C. USC §2254(d)(1) by setting aside a capital sentence on the ground that the prosecutor's closing statement was "unfairly inflammatory." … Our primary concern was whether the Court of Appeals' application of the more stringent standard of review mandated by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) 110 Stat. 1214, was consistent with our interpretation of that statute. Cf Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. ___ (2006). We are now aware of circumstances that persuade us that dismissal of the writ is the appropriate manner in which to dispose of this case."

The "circumstances" alluded to in the Court's opening paragraph involved two other capital punishment cases in which the same prosecutor made the same closing argument to the jury (one of the cases involved Weaver's co-defendant). Also, in each of the other cases (as in the present case), the defendant filed a petition seeking habeas relief before the effective date of AEDPA. In those cases, the courts granted habeas review, as the Eighth Circuit had done in this (Weaver's) case. However, in Weaver's case, it came in a roundabout way. His first petition was dismissed by the district court as premature, because Weaver's petition to the U.S. Supreme Court for review of his state courts' decisions (the Missouri Supreme Court) was pending. Once the Supreme Court denied his petition for state court review, Weaver then re-filed his habeas request. By this time, AEDPA had already gone into effect, imposing the stricter standard mentioned above. The district court denied relief again.

Although relief had been granted in the other two cases based on the more lenient pre-AEDPA standard for review, in Weaver's case, the Eighth Circuit (in reviewing the Missouri Supreme Court's decision) applied the stricter AEDPA standard. It nonetheless found that, since there was some Supreme Court precedent on guilt-phase closing arguments and penalty-phase closing arguments, there was "clearly-established federal law" that the prosecutor in Weaver's case violated.

Now it appeared that there were two errors. First, the district court did not have cause to dismiss Weaver's original pre-AEDPA petition. In Lawrence v. Florida, 549 U.S ____ (2007), the Supreme Court dispositively established that a district court was wrong in concluding that, if a person sought certiorari review (of state court decisions), he had to exhaust that remedy before filing a federal habeas petition. The Court in that case said that "[s]tate review ends when the state courts have finally resolved an application for state post-conviction relief."

Second, regarding the Eighth Circuit's substantive ruling that the Missouri Supreme Court had unreasonably applied "clearly established law," the Supreme Court has never ruled on whether closing argument statements, similar to the ones in these three cases, were inflammatory and required reversal of a sentence. Therefore, there was unlikely "clearly established law," as required under the stricter AEDPA standard.

But the Court's per curiam opinion did not address the question of whether the Eighth Circuit had substantively erred in its application of the AEDPA. Instead the Court dismissed the writ as 'improvidently granted." A decision on the Eighth Circuit's application of AEDPA may have been "outcome-determinative," meaning that the outcome of the other two cases (that were not appealed) could affect the outcome of this one. The Court's dismissal let stand the Eighth Circuit's grant of habeas relief to Weaver, effectively setting aside his death sentence.

"… [W]e find it appropriate to exercise our discretion to prevent these three virtually identically situated litigants from being treated in a needlessly disparate manner, simply because the District Court erroneously dismissed respondent's pre-AEDPA petition," said the Court."

Chief Justice John Roberts concurred in the dismissal, although he "[did] not agree with all the reasons given in the per curiam …" (He did not expound.)

However, Justice Antonin Scalia, joined in dissent by Justices Thomas and Alito, opined that the Court should have addressed the Eighth Circuit's application of AEDPA. While the dissent agreed that the district court had erred, the nature of that error had been clear way before Lawrence v. Florida. Weaver failed to raise this issue until the Supreme Court's merit briefing stage. As a result (opined the dissent), Weaver had been "rewarded" for failing to previously raise the issue of the prior erroneous dismissal, and this alone would have precluded Supreme Court review because Weaver had not "exhausted" his appeals on this issue.

But the dissent disliked that the majority had relied on this fact for dismissing the case. Justice Scalia pointed out that, in any event, no legal principle, i.e. "clearly established law," would have entitled Weaver to relief from the collateral consequences of an uncorrected judicial error. He clearly implied that the Eighth Circuit's application of AEDPA was erroneous, and cautioned other courts not to follow.