Federal Courts Have Authority to Impose Habeas Remedies, Despite Different Remedies Available to State Courts

What kind of remedy is proper in granting federal habeas corpus relief to a state prisoner is left up to the federal court, and is not dependent on what the remedies available to the state courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held on Sept. 3, 2021.

After the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted habeas corpus relief to four Michigan State prisoners, the state appealed, arguing that the same remedy the four different judges imposed as federal habeas relief was wrong and that they should have ordered a more limited remedy in line with what the state courts might impose.

The error was the same in all four cases: That the trial court`s use of Michigan`s mandatory sentencing guidelines was unconstitutional. And the remedy was the same: A full resentencing under the now-advisory guidelines. But the state wanted the federal district court to restrict the remedy to what`s known in Michigan as a “Crosby hearing,” which would have required the state court to conduct a new sentencing hearing only if it found it would have imposed a materially different sentence had the guidelines been advisory and not mandatory. See United States v. Crosby, 397 F.3d 103 (6th Cir. 2005).

In People v. Lockridge, 870 N.W.2d 502 (Mich. 2015), the Michigan Supreme Court held that the state`s sentencing guidelines violated a defendant`s Sixth Amendment right to have a jury find the facts necessary to impose of increase the mandatory minimum sentence for an offense. It was a decision directly resulting from the U.S. Supreme Court`s decision holding the same for the federal sentencing guidelines in Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99 (2013).

All four habeas petitioners in this consolidated appeal had exhausted their state remedies for relief but were denied, the courts there holding that Lockridge didn`t apply retroactively. When they filed for habeas relief in the federal courts, those courts found that the state courts had contradicted “clearly established federal law” to allow federal relief under 28 U.S.C. sec 2254(d). The “clearly established federal law” was the Supreme Court`s holding in Alleyne.

The Michigan Supreme Court, in Lockridge, said that a Crosby hearing was the appropriate remedy for someone sentenced under the old mandatory guidelines. The state argued that the federal courts abused their discretion when they imposed a different kind of remedy. A federal court`s choice of habeas remedy is reviewed on appeal for an “abuse of discretion.” Hilton v. Braunskill, 481 U.S. 770 (1987). But if a court “bases its ruling on an erroneous view of the law,” that`s an abuse of discretion, the Sixth Circuit reiterated.

What happened here, however, was not an abuse of discretion by the federal district courts in imposing a certain habeas remedy. First, the Supreme Court has never said what the proper remedy would be for an unconstitutional sentence under an invalidated mandatory guidelines system. After United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), where the Supreme Court invalidated the mandatory federal sentencing guidelines as unconstitutional, the Sixth Circuit upheld various remedies, and a Crosbyhearing was but one type of remedy. The district courts here did not “base [their] ruling[s] on an erroneous view of the law,” the Court said.

The Court also rejected the state`s argument that the interests of “comity” and “federalism” require a federal habeas court to defer to a state court`s choice of federal habeas remedy.

We are not bound by the Michigan Supreme Court`s choice of remedy in Lockridge. While comity instructs that the state court should have the first opportunity to correct its error, it does not mean that a federal habeas court conditionally granting relief on a federal constitutional violation is bound by the state court`s chosen remedy. Affirming the district courts` conditional grants of relief and chosen habeas remedy in these cases does not offend comity when the state courts had the first opportunity to correct the error but incorrectly held that the rule was not retroactive.

As for federalism, the Court rejected the state`s argument that a full resentencing ordered by the federal district court usurped the state courts` power to craft a remedy and would be too expensive.

There are valid reasons why a court may decide that a full resentencing hearing, which allows a defendant to appeal in court and make new arguments cased on the advisory guidelines range, more effectively cures the constitutional violation than a more limited Crosby hearing. The fact that a full resentencing may require more state resources that a Crosby hearing is insufficient to find that ordering a resentencing is an abuse of discretion.

The Court therefore held that the district courts did not abuse their discretion by imposing a habeas remedy that may differ from the state courts` choice of remedy. See: Morrell v. Wardens, 12 F.4th 626 (6th Cir. 2021).

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