Ever wonder what it would be like to pitch to Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle in consecutive plate appearances? Obviously, those Yankee greats played in different eras, but arguably they are some of the very best players to ever play the game.
Last year, in the Michigan Law Review Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote that The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court has created “a twisted labyrinth of deliberately crafted legal obstacles that make it as difficult for habeas petitioners to succeed in pursuing the writ as it would be for a Supreme Court justice to strike out” Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle.
Traditionally, a prisoner could file a habeas corpus petition in federal court seeking to overturn a state conviction. “Habeas lies to enforce the right of personal liberty,” wrote Justice William Brennan in 1963; “when that right is denied and a person confined, the federal court has the power to release him.”
In the 1960s, according to the New York Times, the Supreme Court expanded the law of habeas corpus to protect against the unfair treatment of defendants at every stage of a criminal process, from arrest and interrogation through trial and sentencing, especially in cases leading to death sentences.
The Great Writ, as it was often called, was emasculated by the AEDPA.
The AEDPA was the work of President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress. Clinton wanted to prove that Democrats were as tough on crime as Republicans. However, some prominent practitioners were concerned. At the time, according to The Intercept, four former attorneys general sent a letter to Clinton urging him to “communicate to the Congress your resolve, and your duty under the Constitution, to prevent the enactment of such unconstitutional legislation and the consequent disruption of so critical a part of our criminal punishment system.”
Clinton capitulated to Congress and the AEDPA was born. The law limited the authority of the writ of habeas corpus to those cases which “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law” or “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.”
Davis v. Ayala, decided last summer by the U.S. Supreme Court, is a vivid example of the erosion of habeas corpus. In 1989, Hector Ayala was charged with murdering three men in a drug deal gone bad. During jury selection at Ayala’s trial, prosecutors struck all of the prospective jurors who were black or Hispanic.
Three years earlier, the Supreme Court ruled that systematically excluding jurors on the sole basis of race violated the U.S. Constitution. In Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court ruled that making race a disqualifier violated the accused’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause.
Ayala’s case slowly made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
According to the New York Times, the Supreme Court, relying on the ADEPA, chided the court of appeals for misunderstanding the role of a federal court. A federal court, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote, was merely supposed to stand guard against “extreme” judicial malpractice by state courts — not “substitute its own opinions for the determination made on the scene by the trial judge.”
So what is relevant about the ADEPA today? President Clinton’s crime justice legacy — including the ADEPA — will most certainly be an issue in the presidential election this fall. From overcrowded prisons to the erosion of civil rights, Bill Clinton’s tough-on-crime rhetoric of the 1990s may come back to haunt Hillary Clinton in 2016.
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book, “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010,” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.