Act I, Scene II: Wood v. Allen

Now this case, for me at least, is terribly confusing, because I thought, reading the cert petition, that the Court granted cert to deal with a legal question that has confused the lower courts, that is, what is the relationship between (d)(2) and (e)(1) of AEDPA? Justice Ginsburg

I agree, Ruth. This case is terribly confusing. First things first, what is “cert” and why does the court grant it? Technically, Justice Ginsburg is using cool, legal shorthand to try and seem hip and relevant to teens (hint: no one is relevant to teens). Cert is short for certiorari. When someone wants the Supremes to review their case, they ask the court. If at least four Supremes want to hear the case, they grant a “petition of certiorari;” even Justice Ginsburg realizes this is a bit stuffy.

Next up: that pesky acronym “AEDPA”: The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (yikes). Thankfully, Justice Sotomayor explains the act “contains two provisions governing federal-court review of state-court factual findings.” Great. It is clear what this case is about from the first sentence of the opinion. That has to be a record.

Under 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(2), a federal court may not grant a state prisoner’s application for a writ of habeas corpus based on a claim already adjudicated on the merits in state court unless that adjudication “resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” Under §2254(e)(1), “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct,” and the petitioner “shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.”

Habeas corpus is pretty nifty. It is basically the ability for someone in state detention to ask the federal courts to make sure their confinement is legal. Translation: “Can they really hold me here like this? Like for real for real?”

In this case, petitioner, a capital defendant, challenges the key factual finding made by the Alabama state court that denied his application for postconviction relief: that his attorneys’ failure to pursue and present mitigating evidence of his borderline mental retardation was a strategic decision rather than a negligent omission. Petitioner argues that the state court’s finding was unreasonable under §2254(d)(2) and that, in denying his federal habeas petition, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit erroneously conflated this standard with that of §2254(e)(1), which petitioner contends is not applicable in cases, such as this one, not involving a separate federal habeas evidentiary hearing.

Woods is basically arguing that he is receiving the death penalty because his legal team chose not to pursue evidence that may have resulted in a lesser sentence. However, Woods also argues that (e)(1) would only apply to habeas cases that involve evidentiary hearings (this means the federal court would actually review new evidence and not just review the record). Evidentiary hearings are uncommon, and “less frequent after AEDPA” according to a 2007 Department of Justice-funded study.

Only 9.5% of the capital cases in the sample included an evidentiary hearing, compared to 19% prior to AEDPA. Although some of the unfinished cases in the sample could yet include evidentiary hearings, the number is unlikely to reach the rate reported prior to AEDPA.

During oral arguments, Justice Roberts said, “the problem is that (d)(2) refers to determination of facts and asks whether it’s unreasonable. (E)(1) talks about facts and has a whole different test, and I guess the difficulty I’ve had is reconciling the two.” That’s two Justices confused, for the record. Justice Breyer asked counsel to give “an example where you’re trying to proceed under (d)(2), and (e)(1) is somehow relevant.” General Maze gives and example and Justice Breyer is having none of it, saying, “No. You just look at them, and you look under (d)(2), and you say this is an unreasonable determination of fact, period. There’s no reason to go into (e)(1). I mean, if it is an unreasonable determination of fact, he wins. And if it isn’t, you win.”

General Maze fires back, “The reason that you go under (e)(1) is because Congress has said that you have to.”

Justice Breyer volleys, “It didn’t say that. What it says in (e)(1) is (e)(1) is talking about in a proceeding instituted by an application by a person in custody, the factual issue is presumed correct. But if you fail to develop — you know, in a proceeding, it’s presumed correct. You’re right it doesn’t say it literally. But I can’t figure out an application for it unless they’re talking about where there is a new hearing. Otherwise there is just no need for it, it is just repetitive and it gets people mixed up, and (d)(2) does all the work.”

During the recorded oral arguments for this case, three Justices clearly stated confusion. Not indecision, not moral ambiguity, pure and simple doctrinal confusion. So, do the Supremes take this opportunity to clarify how these two aspects of the law interact?

We granted certiorari to address the relationship between §§2254(d)(2) and (e)(1). We conclude, however, that the state court’s factual determination was reasonable even under petitioner’s reading of §2254(d)(2), and therefore we need not address that provision’s relationship to §2254(e)(1).

No they do not.