Summary of 9th Circuit decision in Summerlin v. Stewart
On September 2, 2003, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prisoners in Arizona are not necessarily barred from seeking habeas corpus relief in federal court on the ground that their death sentences are invalid because ""aggravating circumstances"" necessary to the imposition of capital punishment were found by a judge rather than by a jury. The Supreme Court held in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S.584 (2002), that in a state like Arizona, where at least one aggravating circumstance is a necessary precondition to a death sentence, the 6th amendment requires the prosecution to prove the existence of that circumstance to a jury's satisfaction (beyond a reasonable doubt). Yet some prosecutors contended that prisoners who were sentenced before the Ring decision was handed down should be denied the benefits of the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution. The 9th Circuit rejected that argument.
According to another Supreme Court decision, Teague v. Lane, 488 U.S. 289 (1988), prisoners typically cannot seek federal habeas corpus relief on the basis of new rules of federal constitutional procedure established since their convictions and sentences became final on appellate review. The 9th Circuit explained, however, that the so-called ""Teague doctrine"" does not foreclose prisoners in Arizona from pressing claims based on Ring in federal habeas corpus proceedings. The court gave two reasons.
First, the Teague doctrine deals only with novel rules governing the procedures in criminal trials. The Ring decision reshaped the elements of capital murder in Arizona, thereby effecting a change in the substantive law of that state. Accordingly, Teague's blanket prohibition against claims based on new procedural rules is inapplicable to Arizona cases in which prisoners advance claims based on Ring.
Second, the Teague general prohibition on new procedural rules is not monolithic but allows certain exceptions. One of those exceptions is for ""watershed"" procedural rules that ""alter our understanding of the bedrock procedural elements essential to the fairness of a proceeding."" The 9th Circuit held that the rule announced in Ring fits that description. Accordingly, even if the Ring rule is considered to be procedural rather than substantive, still the Teague doctrine does not bar prisoners from seeking federal habeas corpus relief in reliance on that rule.
The decision in Summerlin may affect death sentences in Idaho, Montana, Colorado and Nebraska, as well as Arizona. Nevertheless, we should all understand (and we should make the press and the public understand) that the Teague doctrine is only one of many hurdles that death row prisoners must clear if they are to obtain relief from their convictions or sentences in federal court. We anticipate, for example, that some prosecutors will argue that many prisoners should be barred from going to federal court with claims based on the rule the Supreme Court adopted in Ring because they failed to raise the same claims previously in state court (even if, at that time, Ring had not yet been decided). We also expect prosecutors to argue that a provision of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 forecloses most prisoners from advancing Ring claims if they previously sought federal relief unsuccessfully on other grounds.
The question still remains as to whether the Ring decision applies to cases filed after the effective date of the AEDPA in April 1996. The AEDPA's retroactivity language is similar to the Teague doctrine, except that the statute does not mention of the two Teague exceptions. Significant legal arguments can be made that Congress did not intend to abolish these exceptions, and that in any event it would be an unconstitutional construction of the statute to apply it in such a way as to deny retroactivity to prisoners who filed their first federal habeas petitions after the AEDPA became law.
In the end, then, Summerlin eliminates only one barrier to some prisoners whose death sentences were imposed in violation of the Constitution but leaves many others in place. We would like to think that this circuit decision will make it possible for lots of prisoners in Arizona and elsewhere to upset their death sentences. In fact, that is probably unlikely. The system is still broken, and a single narrow decision like Summerlin (welcome as it is) will not fix it.