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SCOTUS Starts Bullying Early, Reverses 9th in Habeas Appeal

By William Peacock, Esq. on October 07, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Given that the Ninth Circuit is a perennial contender for most frequently reversed, it was not a huge surprise to see the Supreme Court toss one of their decisions in the shredder. It was a bit surprising, however, to see it happen so quickly -- before oral arguments began, and on the same day the Court released an orders list clearing much of its summer cert. petition backlog.

Why did the Supreme Court give the Ninth Circuit the quick and swift rejection, like a gowned and gaveled Dikembe Mutombo? It's the much-maligned Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), and more specifically, the Ninth Circuit's completely botched application of its review standard.

SCOTUS Week at FindLaw

Either Way, You're Convicted

Smith was convicted of either beating his wife to death to avoid giving her half in a divorce, or of having someone else do it. Based on the DNA evidence, the former seems more likely. After recounting the exhaustive evidence against the petitioner, the Court got to the issue at the heart of the petition and appeals -- an aiding-and-abetting jury instruction. In California, aiding and abetting is as good as committing the crime oneself.

The jury, which was instructed on both direct culpability, as well as aiding and abetting, convicted him without specifying which theory of guilt it adopted.

On appeal, Smith argued that he wasn't given sufficient notice of the aiding-and-abetting theory. The state court disagreed, noting that not only did the accusatory pleading point to the relevant statutes, but the evidence presented during the preliminary examination would have put him on notice as well.

However, a district court and the Ninth Circuit granted habeas relief, holding that his Sixth Amendment and due process right to notice had been violated because it believed the prosecution (until it requested the aiding-and-abetting jury instruction) had tried the case only on the theory that respondent himself had delivered the fatal blow.

Dude, We've Been Over This

How many ways can an appeals court botch AEDPA review? Many, apparently, especially when they don't learn from past mistakes.

"We have emphasized, time and again, that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 110 Stat. 1214, prohibits the federal courts of appeals from relying on their own precedent to conclude that a particular constitutional principle is 'clearly established,'" the per curiam court stated.

AEDPA allows a federal court to grant relief when a state court comes to a decision that was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States."

The key, of course, is "by the Supreme Court." The Ninth Circuit cited its own Sheppard v. Rees decision, which it said "faithfully applied the principles enunciated by the Supreme Court." Which principles and from which cases? Only three cases, holding that notice be provided in general.

"This proposition is far too abstract to establish clearly the specific rule respondent needs. We have before cautioned the lower courts -- and the Ninth Circuit in particular -- against 'framing our precedents at such a high level of generality,'" the Court noted. Similarly, a lower court cannot "refine or sharpen a general principle of Supreme Court jurisprudence into a specific legal rule that this Court has not announced."

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