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Woodall: AEDPA's 'Clearly Established' Standard Gets More Rigid

By William Peacock, Esq. on April 29, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Lost in last week's flurry of major Supreme Court decisions was a case that on the surface seemed unremarkable: the Sixth Circuit was reversed in a habeas case. How many times have we typed those words?

But, repetitive procedural path aside, White v. Woodall is actually quite the interesting case for those who work within the restrictive confines of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). The all-too-familiar standard is that a federal court shouldn't grant habeas relief unless there was an "unreasonable application" of clearly established federal law.

This opinion makes the already inflexible standard even more rigid, emphasizing that courts are not to make the logical leap from two prior holdings to a hypothetical one unless, "the error alleged is so obvious that there could be no fair-minded disagreement about its existence."

Majority: A Plus B Doesn't Mandate C

In Carter v. Kentucky (1981), the Court held that a trial judge, during the guilt phase of a trial, "has the constitutional obligation, upon proper request," to give a requested no-adverse-inference instruction in order "to minimize the danger that the jury will give evidentiary weight to a defendant's failure to testify."

In Estelle v. Smith (1981), the Court noted that "so far as the protection of the Fifth Amendment privilege is concerned," it could "discern no basis to distinguish between the guilt and penalty phases" of a defendant's "capital murder trial."

Robert Woodall requested a no-adverse-inference instruction during the penalty phase. Does Carter plus Estelle equal a clearly established federal law that was violated by the trial court's refusal of Woodall's requested instruction?

Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, held that no such right (no-adverse-inference during the penalty phase) yet been addressed by the Court, as "it is not uncommon for a constitutional rule to apply somewhat differently at the penalty phase than it does at the guilt phase." Plus, a third case, Mitchell v. United States (1999) highlights the proposition that Woodall's scenario is not quite settled.

The Court, in Mitchell, held that an adverse inference, made by the trial judge during the penalty phase, was contrary to the Fifth Amendment, but the Court expressed reservation in its holding, stating that the case dealt with an inference about the facts of the crime. ("Whether silence bears upon the determination of a lack of remorse, or upon acceptance of responsibility ... we express no view on it.")

The express reservation in Mitchell is especially relevant here, since Woodall pleaded guilty to all charges, all facts necessary for a conviction were already decided, and remorse was likely a determining factor in his sentence.

'Extend' Doctrine Dead

Two prior Supreme Court decisions, Williams and Ramdass, borrowed language from the Fourth Circuit, the "unreasonable [refusal] to extend the governing legal principle to a context in which the principle should have controlled," standard. In essence, this standard requires trial courts to make the A+B=C leap.

Woodall argued that Carter and Estelle, if not directly establishing a clear rule, at least set up the mandatory extension. But Scalia rejected the "unreasonable-refusal-to-extend rule," noting that "[i]t has not been so much as endorsed in a majority opinion, let alone relied on as a basis for granting habeas relief."

Instead, he quoted another case that seems to fit more in line with the strictness of the AEDPA standard: "Thus, 'if a habeas court must extend a rationale before it can apply to the facts at hand,' then by definition the rationale was not 'clearly established at the time of the state-court decision.'"

Dissent: No Adverse Inference Instruction Required in Penalty Phase

Justice Breyer, writing on behalf of himself, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor, agreed that there is no "unreasonable-refusal-to-extend rule," but felt that Estelle and Carter clearly established the notion that a no-adverse-inference instruction was required by the Fifth Amendment in the guilt and penalty phases of the trial, since the Fifth Amendment protections are consistent across the two phases.

As Scalia notes in his opinion, the line between two cases establishing a third rule, and two cases being extended beyond their holdings to create a third rule is fuzzy. What do you think -- did Scalia or Breyer have the better end of the argument here? Join the discussion on Facebook at FindLaw for Legal Professionals.

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