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Granting Habeas Relief: Circuit Courts May Not Rely On Their Own Precedent But Must Rely On Federal Law “As Determined By The U.S Supreme Court”


criminal appeals lawyer, granting habeas relief, circuit courts may not rely on their own precedents, federal law, u.s. supreme court

Lopez v. Smith

U.S Supreme Court

574 U.S. __2014

Decided on: October 6, 2014  

Beware The Prosecutor That Relies On One Theory Of Criminal Liability And Requests A Jury Charge On Another Theory Of Criminal Liability 

Blog By: Stephen N. Preziosi Esq., Criminal Appeals Lawyer 

Issue: Whether the Ninth Circuit erred when it granted a habeas petition relying on the Ninth Circuit’s own case law and finding that the Defendant’s Sixth Amendment and Due Process rights to notice had been violated and failed to identify any U.S. Supreme Court case law with a similar holding.

Summary: Respondent sought federal habeas relief on the ground that a state court, in adjudicating a claim on the merits, misapplied federal law.  The U.S Supreme Court held that a federal court may grant relief only if the state court’s decision is contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the United States Supreme Court.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), prohibits the federal courts of appeals from relying on their own precedent to conclude that a particular constitutional principle is clearly established. In this case, the U.S Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit erred when it cited only its own precedent for establishing the relevant standard.

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Holding: The U.S Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit erred when it relied only on its own precedent for establishing the appropriate standard absent a decision of the U.S Supreme Court in order to clearly establish the relevant standard.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), prohibits the Federal Courts Of Appeals from relying on their own precedent to conclude that a particular constitutional principle is established.

AEDPA permits habeas relief only if a state court’s decision is  ‘contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law’ as determined by the U.S Supreme Court, not by the Courts of Appeals.

Facts: Defendant was arrested for the murder of his wife. At the close of evidence, the Prosecution requested an aiding–and–abetting instruction; the trial court agreed. The jury convicted Defendant of first-degree murder. Defendant filed a petition for habeas relief with the United States District Court and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that the information charging defendant with first-degree murder was sufficient to put him on notice that he could be convicted either as a principal or as an aider-and abettor, because under California law, aiding–and-abetting a crime is the same substantive offense as perpetrating the crime.

The U.S Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals pointed to no case holding as much. Instead, the Ninth Circuit cited three older cases that stand for nothing more than the general proposition that a Defendant must have adequate notice of the charges against him. The U.S Supreme Court held that the proposition was far too abstract to establish clearly the specific rule respondent needs. The U.S. Supreme Court has cautioned the lower courts against framing the Supreme Court’s precedents at such a high level of generality. The U.S Supreme Court stated that because their case law does not clearly establish the legal proposition needed to grant the respondent habeas relief, the Ninth Circuit was forced to rely heavily on its own case law.

Legal Analysis: The United States Supreme Court held that when a State prisoner seeks Federal habeas relief on the ground that a State court, in adjudicating a claim on the merits, misapplied Federal law, a federal court may grant relief only if 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, 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(1).

The U.S Supreme Court held that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 110 Stat. 1214, prohibits the Federal Courts of Appeals from relying on their own precedent to conclude that a particular constitutional principle is clearly established.

The U.S Supreme Court held that Circuit precedent cannot refine or sharpen a general principle of U.S Supreme Court jurisprudence into a specific legal rule that the U.S Supreme Court has not announced.

In this case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that the information charging respondent with first degree murder was initially sufficient to put him on notice that he could be convicted either as a principal or as an aider-and-abettor, because under California law, “aiding and abetting a crime is the same substantive offense as perpetrating that crime”. But the Ninth Circuit nonetheless concluded that respondent’s Sixth Amendment and Due Process right to notice had been violated because they believed the Prosecution (until it requested the aiding and abetting jury instruction) had tried the case only on the theory that respondent himself had delivered the fatal blow.

The U.S Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit did not identify any case in which the Supreme Court found notice constitutionally inadequate. Although the Defendant was initially adequately apprised of the offence against him, the Prosecutor focused at trial on one potential theory of liability at the expense of another. Rather, it found the instant case to be “indistinguishable from” the Ninth Circuit’s own decision in Sheppard v. Rees, 909 F.2d 1234 1989, which the Ninth Circuit thought faithfully applied to the principals enunciated by the U.S Supreme Court.

The U.S Supreme Court further held that the Ninth Circuit’s grant of habeas relief may be affirmed only if the U.S Supreme Court’s cases clearly establish that a Defendant, once adequately apprised of such a possibility, can nevertheless be deprived of adequate notice by a prosecutorial decision to focus on another theory of liability at trial. The U.S Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit pointed to no case of theirs holding as much. The Ninth Circuit cited only its own precedent for establishing the appropriate standard. Absent a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that clearly establishes the relevant standard, the Ninth Circuit had nothing against which it could assess, and deem lacking, the notice afforded with respondent by the information and proceedings.

The Ninth Circuit therefore had no basis to reject the state court’s assessment that respondent was adequately apprised of the possibility of conviction on an aiding-and-abetting theory. The U.S Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and remanded for further proceedings.


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