The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Volokh Conspiracy

Another term, another summary reversal of the 6th Circuit in a habeas case


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit has developed something of a reputation in the Supreme Court—and it's not a particularly good one. Over the past several years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly reversed the 6th Circuit in habeas cases, often without oral argument. In nearly all of these cases, the 6th Circuit granted a habeas petition and the court reversed, typically finding that the 6th Circuit failed to apply the narrow habeas review mandated by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).

Today continued the trend. In Jenkins v. Hutton, the court summarily reversed a divided 6th Circuit panel opinion that had granted a habeas petition to death-row inmate Percy Hutton, concluding that Hutton could raise a procedurally defaulted claim challenging the adequacy of the jury instructions in order to avoid a "fundamental miscarriage of justice." The Supreme Court disagreed, concluding that the 6th Circuit was too quick to excuse the procedural default. "On the facts of this case, the Sixth Circuit was wrong to hold that it could review Hutton's claim under the miscarriage of justice exception to procedural default," the court's per curiam opinion explained.

Interestingly enough, the court decided another capital habeas case today, McWilliams v. Dunn. In this case, the court ruled 5-4 in favor of the death-row inmate. Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, held that, under Ake v. Oklahoma, the Alabama courts had unreasonably denied James McWilliams the assistance of a qualified mental health expert to help prepare his defense. Justice Samuel Alito dissented, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.