Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What's at stake in Metrish v. Lancaster

By Associate Visiting Clinical Professor Lara Bazelon

In the Supreme Court case of Metrish v. Lancaster, the state appeals the finding of the Sixth Circuit's grant of habeas relief to Burt Lancaster (no relation to the actor), who was twice tried and found guilty for the murder of his girlfriend. In the first trial, Lancaster raised both insanity and diminished capacity defenses. The jury rejected both, but because of an unrelated constitutional error, the conviction was set aside.

At the second trial, Lancaster again sought to raise the insanity defense. In the interim, however, the Michigan Supreme Court abolished the defense. That decision was applied to Lancaster retroactively. Lancaster was once again convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

After exhausting his state court appeals, Lancaster filed a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. Lancaster lost in the district court, but prevailed before a divided panel of Sixth Circuit judges, which granted the writ after finding that Lancaster's due process rights were violated.

To find in Lancaster's favor, the panel had to clear two exceptionally high hurdles erected by the United States Supreme Court's retroactivity and habeas jurisprudence. On the retroactivity front, the court of appeals had to find that the Michigan courts' abolition of the diminished capacity defense was "unexpected and indefensible." On the habeas front, the bar was even higher: the Sixth Circuit had to find that the Michigan courts' decision to apply retroactively to Lancaster its "unexpected and indefensible" decision was "so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement" among reasonable jurists.

You may be wondering exactly what kind of habeas petitioner could possibly prevail under either standard, much less both. I'm not sure I know the answer, but I'm pretty sure it isn't Lancaster.

The dissenting judge on the Sixth Circuit panel laid bare the shaky foundations of her colleagues' opinion. Simply put, the majority could not overcome a standard of review so highly deferential that it allowed federal judges to grant relief to state court petitioners only in cases of "extreme malfunctions in the states' criminal justice systems."

My take: This dissent, coupled with SCOTUS' decision to grant cert, signals swift reversal.

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