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Court strikes down Sixth Circuit grant of habeas relief based on Double Jeopardy Clause

Below, Stanford Law School’s Alex Harris recaps the opinion handed down yesterday in Renico v. Lett, No. 09-338.  (You can read Erin Miller’s coverage of oral arguments in the case here and here.)  Check the Renico v. Lett SCOTUSwiki page for additional information.

Yesterday, the Court issued its opinion in Renico v. Lett (No. 09-338), holding by a vote of six to three that because the Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling that the trial judge’s sua sponte declaration of a mistrial did not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause was not an “unreasonable application of clearly established federal law” under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), the Sixth Circuit erred in granting habeas relief.  The Chief Justice wrote the opinion for the Court, which was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Alito.

At issue in the case was the trial judge’s decision to declare a mistrial in respondent Reginald Lett’s first trial on first-degree murder charges.  Neither Lett nor the state had asked for a mistrial on the record; after four hours of deliberations, the jury had sent the judge a note asking what would happen if it could not agree. In his second trial, the jury found Lett guilty.  He appealed, arguing that the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibited the state from trying him again.  The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed and reversed his conviction, but it was then in turn reversed by the Michigan Supreme Court.  Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding nearly two hundred years ago in United States v. Perez, that court reasoned that a new trial after a mistrial does not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause as long as there was a “manifest necessity” for the mistrial, as reflected by the trial judge’s exercise of its “sound discretion”; moreover, the Michigan Supreme Court noted, the U.S. Supreme Court has subsequently held that appellate courts must generally defer to the trial judge’s determination that the jury is deadlocked.

In its opinion, the Court noted that under AEDPA, habeas relief is not warranted simply because the state court’s decision is wrong, or even when it is clearly wrong. Rather, as Williams v. Taylor held, the state court’s decision must be “objectively unreasonable” – which, the Court emphasized, is a very high threshold. And as the Court held in Yarborough v. Alvarado, the more general the rule, the more deference AEDPA requires. So, although the Court expressed some skepticism that the trial judge was right, “the dual layers of deference required by AEDPA and our double jeopardy precedents” combined to substantially insulate the trial judge’s ruling from habeas review.

Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion that was joined in full by Justice Sotomayor and in part by Justice Breyer.  In his dissent, Justice Stevens provided historical anecdotes about the lengths to which common law courts would go to force juries to reach a verdict, and he reiterated the more pragmatic rationales for the Double Jeopardy Clause’s guarantee that a mistrial will “be reserved for ‘extraordinary and striking circumstances.’” In arriving at his contrary conclusion, Justice Stevens also singled out “details” that, in his view, the majority had “glide[d] too quickly over” and the Michigan Supreme Court had “either overlooked or discounted.”   In the portion of his dissent in which he was writing only for himself and Justice Sotomayor, Justice Stevens then went on to attack the majority’s doubly deferential standard of review. Reminding readers of his dissent from the deferential standard announced in Williams, he contended that federal judges should “decide for themselves” whether the state decisions they review on habeas are wrong – at least to “test the magnitude of any error.”

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler notes that, with the decision in Renico, the Sixth Circuit has now gone 0-4 in habeas Cases this Term – that is, that the Court has now reversed a Sixth Circuit decision granting habeas relief four times in OT2009. With only one such case, Berghuis v. Thompkins, left to be decided, it will be interesting to see whether the Court will – for a fifth time – remind the Sixth Circuit how circumscribed its review must be under Williams.