University of Southern California

Unreasonably Wrong: The Supreme Court’s Supremacy, the AEDPA Standard, and Carey v. Musladin

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Note by Padraic Foran
From Volume 81, Number 3 (March, 2008)

Plenty of injustices go judicially unresolved. On the Supreme Court’s docket, however, injustices in the criminal context have become alarmingly perfunctory, and the cause is a single procedural mechanism: a piece of legislation passed in 1996 called the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”). Though in effect for more than ten years now, two representative cases serve to demonstrate the enormous power of the AEDPA. First, in 2001, a man named Leandro Andrade, a repeat nonviolent thief who stole $150 worth of videotapes from a California big-box store, received a prison sentence of fifty years. In 2003, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, declined Andrade’s petition for habeas corpus without ever reaching the merits of his claim that his sentence was excessive under the Eighth Amendment. In the second case, a seventeen-year-old boy named Michael Alvarado, who was suspected of participating in a car hijacking that led to the murder of the car’s driver, was subjected to a two-hour police station interrogation without Miranda warnings. Though he steadfastly denied involvement at first, the boy eventually broke down and confessed. In 2004, the Supreme Court, in another 5-4 decision, declined his petition for habeas corpus, likewise never reaching the merits of his claim that youth should have been a factor in evaluating whether he was in police custody and therefore deserved Miranda warnings. In both these representative cases the Court never reached the merits, and therefore never decided the interesting questions. The Supreme Court did not decide in Andrade whether fifty years for $150 worth of videotapes was excessive under the Eighth Amendment, nor did the Supreme Court decide in Alvarado whether a seventeen-year-old boy, who was interrogated alone by sheriffs for two hours, was in police custody for purposes of Miranda. To some, such decisions may have been indefensible. Yet because of the AEDPA, the Court never had to make such decisions. Instead, the Court ruled that the respective state court decisions—fifty years for minor theft in Andrade and no consideration of youth in Alvarado—had not violated “clearly established” Supreme Court law as required by section 2254(d)(1) of the AEDPA when granting habeas relief. As this Note will show, this is the procedural habeas corpus mechanism whereby injustices occur: the AEDPA.

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