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Appeals Court Erred in Granting New Trial, Supreme Court Rules

By Linda Greenhouse


The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the federal appeals court in California overstepped its authority when it granted a new trial to a murder defendant whose victim’s relatives sat at the trial, in view of the jury, wearing buttons with the victim’s picture on them.

The appeals court, in granting a writ of habeas corpus, found that the buttons were inherently prejudicial and deprived the defendant, Mathew Musladin, of the right to a fair trial.

Voting 9-0, the Supreme Court overturned that ruling in an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas that did not actually decide whether the buttons were prejudicial. That was, and remains, “an open question in our jurisprudence,” Thomas said. And that was precisely where the appeals court had gone wrong, the justices all agreed; it had based a grant of habeas corpus on a legal principle that the Supreme Court itself had not adopted.

A writ of habeas corpus is a judicial declaration that a prison inmate has been wrongfully convicted or sentenced. The decision Monday was the Supreme Court’s latest effort to interpret and apply a 10-year-old federal statute that substantially restricted the ability of federal judges to use habeas corpus to overturn state-court judgments.

The statute, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, provides that the writ “shall not be granted” unless the state court had issued a decision “that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

The statutory language has proved to be a good deal less precise than it looks. When is federal law “clearly established,” and what constitutes an “unreasonable application” of it? The Supreme Court has been wrestling with these questions, often in contention with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the San Francisco-based appeals court that continues to grant writs of habeas corpus considerably more often than the Supreme Court believes it should.