On December 17, The Constitution Project filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the United States Supreme Court to consider whether the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Hoffman v. Cain would effectively eliminate meaningful federal review of a state court’s factual determinations. In 1998, a Louisiana jury convicted Jessie Hoffman of first-degree murder in the death of Mary Elliot, and found four aggravating circumstances before imposing a death sentence. His conviction was upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court and he was denied state post-conviction relief. A federal district court then denied habeas relief, a decision upheld by the Fifth Circuit based, in large part, on its reading of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
TCP argued in a brief drafted with the generous pro bono assistance of Fulbright & Jaworksi LLP that the level of deference applied by the Fifth Circuit in Hoffman’s case would impose an impossible burden of proof on any prisoner seeking federal court review of a state court decision. The relevant statutory provisions of the AEDPA are 2254(d)(2) and 2254 (e)(1). In reviewing a decision of a state court, 2254(d)(2) instructs a reviewing court that it may not issue a writ of habeas corpus unless the petitioner shows that the underlying state court decision was based on an “unreasonable determination of the facts.” As the Ninth Circuit has found (and the TCP brief emphasizes), this high burden applies in cases in which no new evidence has been introduced on appeal. The other provision – 2254(e)(1) – imposes an entirely different, and even higher, burden on a petitioner, which is applicable in cases where new evidence has been introduced on appeal. In these instances, the state court decision is presumed correct, and the petitioner must rebut this presumption by clear and convincing evidence.
In Hoffman’s case, the appeals court review relied entirely on the state court record – i.e. no new evidence was introduced. However, contrary to the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, rather than requiring the petitioner to meet the demands of (d)(2), the Fifth Circuit “import[ed] the burden of proof contained in 2254(e)(1), which was intended to apply to the introduction of intrinsic evidence, into the review conducted under Section 2254(d)(2).” TCP asserts that the result of this double-deference presents an insurmountable burden for a petitioner to meet in the vast majority of cases, and therefore “ventures in to the forbidden realm of [judicial] abdication.”
Despite AEDPA’s deference to state court decisions, the brief argues that the Supreme Court has recognized in other cases that such deference cannot be so unbounded as to effectively preclude meaningful federal review. Because disposition of the Hoffman case depends on the resolving the difference in interpretation of the law between the Fifth and Ninth Circuits, TCP urged the Supreme Court to take the case.