November 08, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Greene v. Fisher

On November 8, 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Greene v. Fisher, No. 10-637, holding under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) that a federal court must determine whether a state court decision is contrary to "clearly established Federal law" as of the time the state court adjudicates the merits of the charge, rather than at the time the conviction becomes final.

Defendant Greene was convicted of second-degree murder, robbery, and conspiracy.  At trial, the prosecution offered the confessions of several nontestifying codefendants.  The trial court denied Greene's motion for a severance from the other defendants but ordered any references to proper names in the confessions to be replaced with words like "this guy," "someone," and "other guys," or with the word "blank." 

Greene appealed his conviction to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, arguing that the Confrontation Clause of the Constitution forbids the prosecution from introducing a nontestifying codefendant's confession implicating the defendant in the crime, as explained in Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968).  The Pennsylvania Superior Court denied Greene's Confrontation Clause claim on the merits, holding that the redaction had cured any problems under Bruton

Before Greene's conviction became final, the Supreme Court of the United States held that, "considered as a class, redactions that replace a proper name with an obvious blank, the word ‘delete,' a symbol, or similarly notify the jury that a name has been deleted are similar enough to Bruton's unredacted confessions as to warrant the same legal results."  Gray v. Maryland, 523 U.S. 185, 195 (1998).  Greene eventually filed an AEDPA petition, arguing that introduction of his nontestifying codefendants' statements violated the Confrontation Clause as explained in Gray.  The District Court held that the Supreme Court's decision in Gray was not "clearly established" at the time the Pennsylvania Superior Court adjudicated Greene's Confrontation Clause claim on the merits.  A divided panel of the Third Circuit affirmed, holding that § 2254(d)(1) only refers to clearly established federal law "at the time of the state-court adjudication on the merits."  One judge dissented.

The Supreme Court affirmed.  The court held that both the text of § 2254(d)(1) and precedent interpreting it limited "clearly established" federal law to law in effect "as of the time the state court renders its decision" on the merits, rather than precedent that might later be issued before the case becomes final.  Reasoning that the standard in § 2254(d)(1) is "difficult to meet" because of its "backward-looking language," the Court rejected Greene's analogy to Teague v. Lane, noting that the text of § 2254(d)(1) could have been worded differently if it was intended to apply to any decisions up until the time the state conviction becomes final. 

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Download Opinion of the Court

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