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States allowed to expand criminal rights

Dividing 7-2, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that states, under their own laws or constitutions, may give state prisoners the retroactive benefit of Supreme Court criminal law decisions, even if the Court itself has ruled they are not retroactive under federal law.  Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority in Danforth v. Minnesota (06-8273).  Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., dissented, joined by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

The issue in the case is whether the so-called “Teague” formula (Teague v. Lane) for deciding when a Supreme Court ruling on criminal procedure is to apply to earlier cases was binding on the states.  Justice Stevens wrote: “The question in this case is whether Teague constrains the authority of state courts to give broader effect to new rules of criminal procedure than is required by that opinion.  We have never suggested that it does, and now hold that it does not.”

The case involved the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Crawford v. Washington, barring the admission at trial of out-of-court or pre-trial testimony, if that testimony had not been subjected to cross-examination and the witness could not be called at the trial.  The Court, in Whorton v. Bockting in 2007, ruled that the Crawford rule does not apply retroactively; that decision was based on Teague v. Lane.

A Minnesota prison inmate, Stephen Danforth, serving a 316-month prison sentence for a conviction of sexual abuse of a six-year-old boy, claimed that the admission in evidence of a videotape interview with the boy, who did not appear at trial, violated Danforth’s rights under Crawford.  The Minnesota Supreme Court, however, ruled that federal law governed the retroactivity issue, and that Crawford was not retroactive under the Teague formula.  It was while Danforth’s case was pending in the Supreme Court that the Justices decided in Whorton not to apply Crawford to earlier cases.  The Court then agreed to hear Danforth’s appeal.

“A decision by this Court that a new rule does not apply retroactively under Teague,” Justice Stevens wrote, “does not imply that there was no right and thus no violation of that right at the time of trial — only that no remedy will be provided in federal habeas courts.  It is fully consistent with a government of laws to recognize that the finality of a judgment may bar relief.  It would be quite wrong to assume, however, that the question whether constitutional violations occurred in trials conducted before a certain date depends on how much time was required to complete the appellate process.”

Stevens added: “The states that give broader retroactive effect to this Court’s new rules of criminal procedure do not do so by misconstruing the federal Teague standard.  Rather, they have developed state law to govern retroactivity in state post-conviction proceedings.”  Federal law does not prohibit them from doing so, the Court said.

The case was returned to the Minnesota Supreme Court for a further ruling on whether Danforth is entitled to any legal relief.  That will depend upon whether the state’s constitution or laws give defendants in Minnesota the right to retroactive benefit of new criminal procedure decisions.

Chief Justice Roberts, in dissent, said the decision was “contrary to the Supreme Clause and the Framers’ decision to vest in ‘one supreme Court’ the responsibility and authority to ensure the uniformity of federal law.”  Citing Marbury v. Madison (1803), the Chief Justice noted that “this Court has held that the question whether a particular ruling is retroactive is itself a question of federal law.  It is basic tghat when it cmes to any such question of federal law, it is ‘the province and duty’ of this Court ‘to say what the law is.’….State courts are the final arbiters of their own state law; this Court is the final arbiter of federal law. State courts are therefore bound by our rulings on whether our cases construing federal law are retroactive.”