In a pair of 5-to-4 decisions that divided along ideological lines, the Supreme Court on Tuesday made it easier for inmates to challenge their convictions.The 1996 law mentioned is the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) which, along with the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) of '96, represent two of the most draconian pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress (and signed by Bill Clinton).
In McQuiggin v. Perkins, No. 12-126, the majority said that a one-year filing deadline for prisoners seeking federal review of their state court convictions under a 1996 law may be relaxed if they present compelling evidence of their innocence. The new “miscarriage of justice exception” to the deadline, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, “applies to a severely confined category” — cases in which no reasonable juror aware of the new evidence would have voted to convict the defendant.
More interestingly, as SCOTUSblog notes, the McQuiggin decision sets up a direct challenge, if not an outright reversal of, Herrera v. Collins (1993), which infamously declared that "an actual demonstration of innocence, in and of itself, after conviction and sentencing, is not reason enough to stay an execution." If ever there was a decision that should be relegated to the ash heap of history, it's Herrera.
From Ginsburg's majority opinion:
Actual innocence, if proved, serves as a gateway through which a petitioner may pass whether the impediment is a procedural bar...or expiration of the AEDPA statute of limitations. The Court has not resolved whether a prisoner may be entitled to habeas relief based on a freestanding actual-innocence claim, Herrera v. Collins, 506 U. S. 390, 404-405, but it has recognized that a prisoner "otherwise subject to defenses of abusive or successive use of the [*2] writ may have his federal constitutional claim considered on the merits if he makes a proper showing of actual innocence," id., at 404.And my favorite line, in a slap at Scalia, who wrote the dissent:
For all its bluster, the dissent agrees with the Court on a crucial point: Congress legislates against the backdrop of existing law.The second case involves states that procedurally try to block inmates from seeking relief in federal courts.
The state laws and procedures in question are relics from the git tuff 90's when the states, following Congress' and SCOTUS's leads, passed their own versions of AEDPA and PLRA. One of the reasons why Texas saw the surge in executions that it did in the late 90's (other than, y'know, Texas being Texas), was the shortening of the appeals process they passed on the state level, which mirrored the AEDPA almost to the letter.In the second decision issued Tuesday, in Trevino v. Thaler (2013), the same five-justice majority extended a ruling last year that had allowed prisoners to challenge their state convictions in federal courts based on the argument that their trial lawyers had been ineffective, even though the prisoners had not raised the issue in earlier proceedings.In the decision last year, in Martinez v. Ryan, a seven-justice majority considered Arizona’s criminal justice system, which required claims of ineffective assistance of counsel to be raised in a separate state post-conviction challenge, in which there is no right to a lawyer, and not in the direct appeal from the conviction, in which there is. The Supreme Court ruled that federal courts may hear challenges to Arizona convictions based on claims of ineffective assistance at trial if the prisoner had no lawyer in the separate proceeding or if that lawyer was also ineffective.The new case considered Texas’ system, which appears to encourage but not require that such claims be raised in a separate proceeding. Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, said that difference did not matter. “What the Arizona law prohibited by explicit terms,” he wrote, “Texas precludes as a matter of course.”
But now, with Justice Kennedy providing the key swing vote, the court's more liberal wing seems to chipping away at these laws, and the court's own get tough decisions from over the past 20 years, and trying to restore some of the sanity that was taken during the bad old days of the 1990's.
Next up: will this five majority of justices open the door to same sex marriage in all 50 states?