SCOTUS Adds Extra Obstacle to Federal Habeas Relief in Brown v Davenport

Citing the need to respect the finality of state convictions, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) held on April 21, 2022, that a constitutional trial error that`s found to be “substantial and injurious” on the verdict must also clear the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty`s (AEDPA) lower bar on federal habeas relief.

Ervine Davenport was convicted by a Michigan jury of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. On appeal, he argued that being in shackles in front of the jury was a constitutional violation, and the court of appeals agreed. But the court found, after a hearing in the trial court, that the jurors weren`t affected by seeing him shackles, and that the evidence overwhelmingly established his guilt.

Davenport then filed for habeas corpus relief in federal court, under 28 U.S.C. sec 2254, raising the same claim he lost on appeal. The district court found that his claim was barred by the AEDPA because the state court ruled on the merits of his claim and no exception to the AEDPA existed. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and held that the error itself was enough to excuse the AEDPA bar, but SCOTUS agreed with the district court and reversed the Sixth Circuit`s decision.

Being Shackled In Front of the Jury was a Constitutional Violation

No one in this case disagreed that Davenport being shackled in front of the jury was a constitutional violation. In Deck v. Missouri, 544 U.S. 622 (2005), SCOTUS held that, absent a “special need,” a defendant shackled before a jury violated the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Michigan Supreme Court agreed that an error occurred and remanded to the trial court for a hearing, where the jurors testified they were not affected by seeing Davenport in shackles. The trial court accepted this and also found that the evidence at trial “overwhelmingly established defendant`s guilt.” Those things combined led the court to conclude on direct appeal that the error was harmless.

The Standard of Harmless-Error in Federal Habeas Corpus

However, the harmless-error standard is a higher bar in federal habeas corpus than for direct appeal. In Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), SCOTUS modified its harmless-error standard established in Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967), for direct appeal to fit within the confines of federal habeas corpus.

The standard created in Chapman required the prosecution to prove that an error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt for that error to be overlooked by a court of appeals. But in Brecht the Court flipped this burden to the petitioner in a federal habeas case, requiring a showing by the petitioner that the error had a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury`s verdict.”

This high bar was needed, the Court said, because federal habeas is “different” from a direct appeal. Non-structural trial errors should not routinely overturn state-court convictions, the Court said, because the “federal courts are not forums in which to relitigate state trials.” The Court reasoned that federal habeas “has historically been regarded as an extreme remedy, a bulwark against convictions that violate fundamental fairness.”

In Davenport`s case all the courts agreed, and SCOTUS assumed, that a Brecht error occurred with his shackling before the jury. But they didn`t agree on whether the AEDPA also applied.

The AEDPA`s Bar on Federal Habeas Relief for State Prisoners

Because the state court ruled on the merits of Davenport`s claim, the federal district court was barred from granting habeas relief unless one of two exceptions existed: (1) the state court`s decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by [SCOTUS],” or (2) the decision was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.” sec 2254(d).

The district court found that the state court properly identified and applied SCOTUS cases to Davenport`s claim, thereby barring federal habeas relief. But on appeal, the Sixth Circuit found that because the standard for establishing a constitutional trial error under Brecht was a higher bar than the “lower” bar imposed by the AEDPA, the higher bar “subsumed” the lower bar.

The AEDPA`s bar limiting federal habeas relief to state prisoners was enacted by lawmakers three years before Brecht, so SCOTUS didn`t have the guidance of AEDPA in deciding how harmless-error would coexist with the AEDPA. This is why SCOTUS agreed to hear the warden`s appeal in Davenport`s case.

AEDPA Applies Even with a Substantial and Injurious Constitutional Error

The question before SCOTUS in Davenport`s case was whether the AEDPA still applied, despite a finding that a Brecht “substantial and injurious” error of constitutional magnitude occurred at trial. The Court provided three reasons why the AEDPA must still apply with a Brecht error.

1. The tests are different under the AEDPA and Brecht:

Under the AEDPA, sec 2254(d)(1) requires that a federal habeas petitioner prove the state court`s decision was “unreasonable.” SCOTUS has defined this as “no fairminded jurist could reach the state court`s conclusion under this Court`s precedents.” And if the facts are in dispute, sec 2254(d)(2) similarly requires a showing that “reasonable minds reviewing the record might disagree about the finding in question” by the state court.

The Court stressed that this broad focus on not just the habeas court but also including other judges in the analysis was on purpose to make habeas relief harder for state prisoners. “If AEDPA makes winning habeas relief more difficult, it is because Congress adopted the law to do just that.”

Under Brecht, however, the test is whether the federal habeas court itself would harbor “grave doubt” about whether the trial error affected the verdict. “Where AEDPA asks whether every fairminded jurist would agree that an error was prejudicial, Brecht asks only whether a federal habeas court itself harbors grave doubt about the petitioner`s verdict,” the Court explained.

Each test requires the analysis of different legal sources:

The AEDPA requires that a federal habeas court looks only to “clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” This, the Court said, means the actual holding of those Supreme Court decisions. And it`s the Supreme Court`s holdings in effect at the time of the state-court decision that matter, the Court reminded, and not any later decisions that may have been more favorable to the petitioner.

But under the Brecht test, the federal habeas court may use any court case, even those of lower courts, when weighing if a substantial and injurious error was made. “A petitioner might be able to prevail under Brecht thanks to favorable circuit case law but still lose under the AEDPA because no comparable holding exists in the Court`s precedents,” the Court said in distinguishing AEDPA from Brecht.

Despite its prior cases saying so, Brecht doesn`t subsume the AEDPA:

The Court acknowledged that at least two of its previous decisions said that if the high bar for Brecht was satisfied, the AEDPA`s lower bar was “subsumed” by the Brecht test. See Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112 (2007), Davis v. Ayala, 576 U.S. 257 (2015). But the Court said what it meant in those two cases was that “if a federal court determines that a habeas petition fails because of Brecht, there is no need to prolong the matter by formally applying AEDPA as well.” While three Justices strongly disagreed with this “revision” of the Court`s precedents, the majority said the language in those cases was merely a “misunderstanding of stare decisis.”

IN CONCLUSION, the Court distinguished the strict Brecht test for harmless-error in federal habeas corpus from the AEDPA`s more lenient test and found that both tests applied, even when the Brecht test is satisfied. The Supreme Court therefore reversed the grant of habeas relief. See: Brown v. Davenport, No. 20-826 (Apr. 21, 2022).

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