Breaking News

Struggling to Interpret AEDPA

Below, Stanford Law School’s Tiffany Cartwright recaps Wednesday’s oral argument in Wood v. Allen. Tiffany’s earlier preview of the case is available here. Check the Wood v. Allen (08-9156) SCOTUSwiki page for additional updates.

During Wednesday’s oral argument in Wood v. Allen, the Court struggled to find an interpretation of 28 U.S.C. § 2254  that would both give meaning to every part of the statute and provide effective guidance to lower courts.

Kerry Scanlon argued on behalf of petitioner Holly Wood.  A large part of his initial argument was consumed by the Court’s confusion over what was actually at issue in the case, and several members of the Court expressed irritation that Wood’s merits brief seemed to make claims that were outside the scope of the question presented.

Finally, Justice Ginsburg steered the argument toward an issue that the Court had agreed to review: the interaction between subsections (d)(2) and (e)(1) of Section 2254, relating to state court factual findings.  Subsection (d)(2) precludes federal habeas relief unless the state court proceeding “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,” while subsection (e)(1) creates a presumption that “a determination of a factual issue made by a state court” is correct unless rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.

Wood argued that subsection (d)(2) applies to challenges that involve only the state record, whereas (e)(1) governs challenges based on extrinsic evidence.  Justice Breyer seemed to agree, noting that such an interpretation gives meaning to both subsections and prevents them from being repetitive.  Justice Ginsburg, however, noted that because very few habeas proceedings involve extrinsic evidence, under Wood’s reading subsection (e)(1) would rarely apply.

Corey Maze, the Solicitor General of Alabama, argued on behalf of the State. Justice Alito suggested to Maze that all of the subsidiary, individual facts in a state record are presumed correct under (e)(1), but (d)(2) governs whether the state court’s ultimate decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.  Maze agreed that this was essentially his interpretation of the statute.  Justice Breyer seemed to regard this interpretation as a plausible one, but he expressed concern that this scheme would be too complicated for lower courts to apply.  Indeed, he noted, because this interpretation could lead to a whole new jurisprudence on what was a “subsidiary” factual finding, it would be much simpler to just use (d)(2) for the entire inquiry.  Justice Kennedy pointed out that AEDPA is already confusing to lower courts, and that no matter how the Court rules it will be difficult to provide clear guidance using these standards.

Ultimately, the entire Court seemed very concerned about articulating a standard that would not further complicate habeas proceedings.  What standard they will ultimately choose, however, was in no way clear.

Cases: Wood v. Allen