Monday, October 31, 2011

The First Opinion of the Term

Jason Mazzone

One of my current research projects focuses on Supreme Court review of state court decisions on issues of federal law, especially federal constitutional law. The Roberts Court has shown itself to be extremely deferential to state court rulings on issues of federal constitutional law, thus giving the state courts, as a practical matter, a good deal of autonomy. Compared even to the Rehnquist Court, the Roberts Court grants review of state court decisions on issues of federal constitutional law at a very low rate. When it does grant review, however, it reverses at a very high rate and often with a high level of agreement among the Justices that reversal is warranted. In sum, the Court's current approach to state court decisions is to ignore all but the biggest errors.

Consistent with its deference to state courts, the Roberts Court has reversed a good number of decisions by federal courts overturning convictions or vacating sentences on habeas review. In the first opinion of the 2011 Term, in Cavazos v. Smith, the Court does exactly that, with today's 6-3 per curiam summary reversal of a decision by a panel of the Ninth Circuit granting a writ of habeas corpus to a petitioner convicted in California in the death of her 7-week old granddaughter. The petitioner claimed in her habeas petition, as she had in her appeals in state court, that the evidence was insufficient to support the jury verdict. The Ninth Circuit panel agreed. The Supreme Court had vacated the panel's decision twice before, directing, as the Court put it today, "the panel’s attention to this Court’s opinions highlighting the necessity of deference to state courts" on habeas review. The panel failed to take the hint and today it got an earful. Calling the panel's decision "plainly wrong" and its reasoning "simply false," the Court complained that the Ninth Circuit had failed to do what was required of it when the case was previously remanded: "Each time the panel persisted in its course, reinstating its judgment without seriously confronting the significance of the cases called to its attention. Its refusal to do so necessitates this Court’s action today."

And so we're off with a bang.

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