Sixth Circuit smackdown watch: White v. Wheeler


This morning, the Supreme Court issued one merits opinion (a 6-3 decision in DirecTV v. Imburgia) and a summary reversal in White v. Wheeler, a habeas case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The latter is notable because there have been more than a few such reversals of the Sixth Circuit in habeas cases in recent years. Time and again the Supreme Court—often unanimously—has had to reverse the Sixth Circuit for failing to apply the strictures of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) as they have been interpreted by the Supreme Court.

In White, the question was whether the Kentucky Supreme Court's decision to affirm the dismissal of a juror for cause an unreasonable application of existing U.S. Supreme Court precedent. If not, under AEDPA, the Sixth Circuit was obligated to deny the habeas petition. Instead, a divided panel granted the writ.

Here is how the Supreme Court summarized today's summary reversal in its per curiam opinion:

A death sentence imposed by a Kentucky trial court and affirmed by the Kentucky Supreme Court has been overturned,
on habeas corpus review, by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. During the jury selection process, the state trial court excused a juror after concluding he could not give sufficient assurance of neutrality or impartiality in considering whether the death penalty should be imposed. The Court of Appeals, despite the substantial deference it must accord to state-court rulings in federal habeas proceedings, determined that excusing the juror in the circumstances of this case violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. That ruling contravenes controlling precedents from this Court, and it is now necessary to reverse the Court of Appeals by this summary disposition

Later in the opinion, the court made clear its apparent frustration at the unwillingness of some judges on the Sixth Circuit to follow the applicable precedent in habeas cases. The White opinion concludes:

The Kentucky Supreme Court was not unreasonable in its application of clearly established federal law when it concluded that the exclusion of Juror 638 did not violate the Sixth Amendment. . . .

As a final matter, this Court again advises the Court of Appeals that the provisions of AEDPA apply with full
force even when reviewing a conviction and sentence imposing the death penalty. See, e.g., Parker v. Matthews,
567 U. S. ___ (2012) (per curiam); Bobby v. Dixon, 565 U. S. ___ (2011) (per curiam); Bobby v. Mitts, 563 U. S. 395
(2011) (per curiam); Bobby v. Van Hook, 558 U. S. 4 (2009) (per curiam). . . .

[Links added]

This is the court's muted way of saying to the Sixth: "We shouldn't have to keep repeating ourselves. Get with the program."

As I've noted before, it may well be the case that the more generous interpretation of AEDPA that some Sixth Circuit judges prefer is preferable on policy grounds. It may even be the case that these judges have a better interpretation of AEDPA (although I think that is a harder case to make). What is clear, however, is that some of the court's judges appear unwilling to follow the applicable precedents in these cases. Nevertheless, such resistance may work. The Supreme Court can't catch them all, and occasionally a case will slip through.