For the second time this year, the U.S. Supreme Court has summarily rejected a holding of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in a habeas case, shoring up what some legal observers see as a trend in the high court.
The justices have been routinely reversing circuit courts in habeas cases, citing a lack of deference to state courts and often invoking the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
In a unanimous per curiam decision May 29, the Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit on its grant of habeas corpus to Lorenzo Johnson, who was convicted of conspiring in the murder of a man in 1995, the year before Congress passed the AEDPA.
That act curtailed federal judges' ability to grant habeas relief to state prisoners by requiring significant deference to state courts' decisions, but has been delayed in its effect on the system, said Justin Marceau, an assistant professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law.
"I think what we've seen is this warming-up period," he said, referring to the years immediately following what he called a "massive statutory action in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing." Over the last several years, though, the high court has been granting certiorari and summarily reversing or vacating appeals courts' opinions that don't show proper deference to state courts' findings.
"It is a regrettable reality that some federal judges like to second-guess state courts," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a recent dissent.
He argued in Cash v. Maxwell that the Supreme Court should grant certiorari and summarily reverse a Ninth Circuit decision. He went on: "The only way this court can ensure observance of Congress's abridgement of their habeas power is to perform the unaccustomed task of reviewing utterly fact-bound decisions that present no disputed issues of law."
Reviewing facts and the application of law is a significant departure from the high court's usual business of resolving substantive disputes of law between the circuits.
"I really do think it's notable that the Supreme Court is regularly engaging in this factual review," Marceau said.
"My best guess is that they are preoccupied with a sense of enforcing AEDPA," said Marceau, and enforcing deference to state courts.