Prisoners file Habeas Corpus motions following their convictions in an effort to gain a new trial or burst free from the chains of incarceration once and for all. Habeas Corpus is a procedure that allows the inmate to show that his conviction was obtained illegally. In our court system, that usually requires a showing that the trial judge in State court committed unconstitutional errors in finding you guilty. The Federal court then rules on the Habeas petition. Under a law passed in 1996 to make it more difficult to overturn State court convictions, the inmate wins if he can show the State court violated clearly established Federal constitutional law. Remember that phrase: "clearly established" Federal constitutional law.
Last week, in Rodriquez v. Miller, the Court of Appeals (Cardamone, McLaughlin and Parker) reversed itself in a Habeas Corpus case. At first, the Court granted the inmate's Habeas petition after finding that the trial court had improperly closed the trial to public scrutiny when, in order to protect his identity, the undercover officer who had arrested the defendant was scheduled to testify. Under the Sixth Amendment, courtrooms cannot be closed to the public for even a limited time without a compelling reason. In early 2006, ruling in favor of Rodriquez, the Court of Appeals ruled that, while the courtroom could generally be closed to the public when the undercover officer testified, the State trial court violated the Constitution because defendant's family was excluded from this portion of the trial. 439 F.3d 68 (2d Cir. 2006). As the Second Circuit reasoned back then, "in particular, we questioned the district court's reliance--without more--on the geographical proximity of the Undercover's territory and the residences of Rodriguez's family members to support the courtroom closure. We relied on a host of decisions of our own Court to support our conclusion that "exclusion of family members requires stricter scrutiny than exclusion of the public."
Then the Supreme Court issued a ruling in a different Habeas Corpus case, Carey v. Musladin, 127 S.Ct. 649 (2007), reiterating the proposition that "clearly established" Federal law is narrowly-defined. To win a Habeas petition, the inmate has to show the State court in some way squarely violated a Supreme Court ruling as opposed to violating a general principle outlined by the Supreme Court. This is not a semantic exercise. Supreme Court dicta (language which is not necessary to the ruling) is not enough; the Habeas petition has to show that the State court violated a Supreme Court holding (squarely applying facts to Supreme Court precedent).
The Carey decision represented the newly conservative Supreme Court's stamp on Habeas Corpus jurisprudence. That case was applicable to Rodriquez because it involved whether a defendant received a fair trial when the victim's family wore certain buttons a trial, potentially influencing the jury. As the Second Circuit summarized the Supreme Court's ruling in Carey, "in contrast to warring decisions among the federal circuits, the effect on a defendant's fair-trial rights of spectator conduct . . . is an open question in our jurisprudence." This means that the Supreme Court does not regard these kinds of cases as "clearly established." For those who file Habeas petitions that allege the illegal closing of a criminal trial courtroom, their chances for success are significantly diminished.
As the Second Circuit saw it, the Supreme Court in Carey quite narrowly interpreted its own precedents in finding that the spectator's button-wearing in that case did not violate clearly-established Supreme Court case law. But since the Supreme Court dictates how the Second Circuit must decide cases, when Rodriquez v. Miller returned to the Court of Appeals, the Circuit had no choice by to take away the Habeas award. Carey changed the way that the Courts of Appeal decide these cases. As the Second Circuit stated, "in the past we (and other courts) occasionally have relied on our own precedents to interpret and flesh out Supreme Court decisions to decide variegated petitions as they come before us. It would appear that we can no longer do this." In other words, the Second Circuit's own precedents are no longer operative in resolving these disputes; only the Supreme Court's narrow rulings can apply.
Under this restrictive standard, the constitutional violation that Rodriquez complained about -- allowing the undercover officer to testify without his family present -- was no longer so profound that the Federal court had to grant the Habeas Corpus petition. In rehearing the Rodriquez v. Miller case, the Second Circuit, which had previously granted Rodriquez's Habeas petition and given him the taste of freedom, had to take it back. The Court of Appeals thus giveth, and taketh, away.