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Seems Like Old Times for the Sixth Circuit at SCOTUS

This morning's summary reversal of a habeas petition grant in Mays v. Hines.


There was a time not so long ago when the Supreme Court would routinely reverse the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, most frequently in habeas cases in which the Sixth Circuit had granted the petition. These decisions were usually unanimous, and often made without oral argument. It happened often enough that court-watchers speculated whether the Sixth Circuit was becoming the "new Ninth" because of the inability or unwillingness of some Sixth Circuit judges to follow the Supreme Court's instruction.

Thus it seemed like old times this morning when the Supreme Court summarily reversed the Sixth Circuit's grant of a habeas petition in Mays v. Hines. The Court issued a brief per curiam opinion over a single noted dissent.

In the opinion below (which was curiously unpublished), a divided panel of the Sixth Circuit granted Tennessee death-row inmate Anthony Darrell Dugard Hines' habeas petition on the grounds that the state court had unreasonably rejected Hines' ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The panel's majority of Judge's Cole and White issued a lengthy per curiam opinion. Judge Kethledge dissented.

This morning's opinion in Mays concludes it was the Sixth Circuit, not the Tennessee state courts, that were unreasonable. Here is how the Court's per curiam opinion begins:

A Tennessee jury found Anthony Hines guilty of murdering Katherine Jenkins at a motel. Witnesses saw Hines fleeing in the victim's car and wearing a bloody shirt, and his family members heard him admit to stabbing someone at the motel. But almost 35 years later, the Sixth Circuit held that Hines was entitled to a new trial and sentence because his attorney should have tried harder to blame another man. In reaching its conclusion, the Sixth Circuit disregarded the overwhelming evidence of guilt that supported the contrary conclusion of a Tennessee court. This approach plainly violated Congress' prohibition on disturbing state-court judgments on federal habeas review absent an error that lies "'beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.'" Shinn v. Kayer, 592 U. S. ___, ___ (2020) (per curiam) (slip op., at 1); 28 U. S. C. §2254(d). We now reverse.

The opinion makes clear that the panel opinion simply failed to engage in the proper legal analysis. Describing the lower court's arguments as "unreasonable," "untenable," and of "little merit," the per curiam scarcely disguises the Court's impatience with the Sixth Circuit panel's approach. (Recall that most of the justices have seen this sort of thing from the Sixth Circuit before.)

More from the opinion:

Had the Sixth Circuit properly considered the entire record, it would have had little trouble deferring to the Tennessee court's conclusion that Hines suffered no prejudice regarding his conviction or sentence. Again, the critical question was not whether the Sixth Circuit itself could see a "'substantial' . . . likelihood of a different result" had Hines' attorney taken a different approach. Cullen, 563 U. S., at 189. All that mattered was whether the Tennessee court, notwithstanding its substantial "latitude to reasonably determine that a defendant has not [shown prejudice]," still managed to blunder so badly that every fairminded jurist would disagree. Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U. S. 111, 123 (2009).

It did not. The Tennessee court reasonably looked to the substantial evidence of Hines' guilt. Hines, 2004 WL 1567120, *27–*28. And it reasonably rejected the "'farfetched'" possibility that Jones committed and self-reported a gruesome murder, in the presence of a witness, at a place where he was well known to the staff. Ibid. In light of this straightforward, commonsense analysis, the Sixth Circuit had no license to hypothesize an alternative theory of the crime in which Jones became a suspect 35 years after the fact—much less rely on that fanciful theory to grant relief . . .

The Sixth Circuit had no reason to revisit the decision of the Tennessee court, much less ignore the ample evidence supporting that court's conclusion.

Justice Sotomayor noted her dissent from today's decision, but did not author a dissenting opinion.