Monday, June 11, 2007

Catching up from Last Week

Its already shaping up to be a busy AEDPA and habeas week after today, but I want to quickly point out an opinion from last week out of the 8th Circuit in Guinn v. Kemna, 06-1344 (here). In Guinn, the court affirmed the district court's denial of habeas from a state court robbery, assault, and armed criminal action action conviction. The panel held that the state court's decision to exclude the hearsay testimony of four witnesses that another man confessed to the crime was not an unreasonable application of Chambers v. Mississippi.

While the opinion is fact-specific, everyone can find something to like here. For those who represent the state, there is the ultimate result. When potentially exculpatory testimony is excluded in the trial court, so long as there is minimal corroboration for the excluded testimony (or some evidence that was actually let it on the matter) that ruling will be upheld on collateral review. For those representing habeas petitioners, there is this discussion regarding Chambers being clearly established Federal law (internal cites omitted):

Our first task is to determine the appropriate clearly established federal law. Guinn proposes that the Missouri Court of Appeals and the District Court correctly identified Chambers v. Mississippi as setting out the clearly established law applicable to his case. But Kemna contends that "Chambers is not clearly established federal law." He relies on the Chambers Court's statement that in reaching its conclusion that the habeas petitioner in that case was denied a fair trial, the Court established "no new principles of constitutional law."Kemna misses the point. The comment was related to the fact-intensive nature of the case. While perhaps not a seminal case in the areas of the law applied to the issues raised, Chambers nevertheless articulates the legal principles applicable to Guinn's claims of constitutional error.

In a later-decided plurality opinion, the Supreme Court described the Chambers holding: "erroneous evidentiary rulings can, in combination, rise to the level of a due process violation." Montana v. Egelhoff. Kemna contends that the four dissenting justices in Egelhoff "categorically stated the opposite view" from that of the four-justice plurality when they described Chambers "as a prohibition on enforcement of state evidentiary rules that lead, without sufficient justification, to the establishment of guilt by suppression of evidence supporting the defendant's case. According to Kemna, because neither of these views of the Chambers decision commanded a majority in Egelhoff, no law was clearly established by the Chambers Court. Kemna asserts that "Guinn's claim, stripped of its Chambers rhetoric, boils down to whether the state court erred in excluding Johnson's confessions," relying on an Eighth Circuit case for the clearly established federal law. As we read it, the statement in the Egelhoff dissent to which Kemna refers does not reflect an "opposite view" at all. An "erroneous evidentiary ruling" can, of course, be one made "without sufficient justification." In any event, although the Chambers opinion established no new constitutional principle, it iterated and applied existing law to the facts of the case before the Court. We conclude that the Missouri Court of Appeals and the District Court correctly identified the applicable law in the Chambers line of cases, here stated yet another way: "[T]he Constitution . . . prohibits the exclusion of defense evidence under rules that serve no legitimate purpose or that are disproportionate to the ends that they are asserted to promote . . . ." Holmes v. South Carolina.