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Criminal Law Newsletter

Barring the Retroactive Application of New Constitutional Rules in Habeas Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court often announces “new rules” of constitutional interpretation. In 1989, the Court explained in Teague v. Lane that a “new rule” is generally one that “breaks new ground or imposes a new obligation on the States or the Federal Government.” Often, the Court will apply a new constitutional rule to the defendant in the case announcing the new rule. Because fairness requires that defendants who are “similarly situated” should receive equal treatment under the Constitution, the Court will also usually apply new rules retroactively to cases on direct review (cases that have not yet become final at the time a new rule is announced). However, the Court has held that new rules generally should not be applied retroactively to cases on collateral review (cases that have become final before a new rule is announced). This means that a defendant whose conviction became final before the Court announced a new rule generally does not benefit from the new rule.

“New Rules” of Constitutional Interpretation

The Teague Court affirmed that new rules will not be applicable to those cases that have become final before the new rules were announced. A case announces a new rule if the rule was not dictated by prior precedent existing at the time the defendant’s conviction became final. Accordingly, interpretations that are a “logical outgrowth” or application of an earlier rule are still new rules, unless the result was “dictated” by that precedent.

Nonretroactivity of New Rules in Habeas Cases

Habeas corpus is a way for criminal defendants to readjudicate their convictions (a collateral remedy that allows convicted defendants to upset final judgments). As the threat of habeas motivates trial and appellate courts to adhere to established constitutional standards, it is sufficient in habeas cases to apply the law prevailing at the time a conviction became final (rather than applying new rules of constitutional interpretation). Further, the Court has held that the costs associated with the retroactive application of new rules in habeas cases usually far outweigh the benefits.

The Court applied this reasoning in Teague, where the defendant filed a writ of habeas corpus repeating a Sixth Amendment fair cross-section claim. Specifically, the defendant in that case (an African American) had previously argued that the prosecutor abused his peremptory challenges to exclude all African Americans from the jury, thereby robbing the defendant of his right under the Sixth Amendment to be tried by a jury of his peers. On habeas, the defendant attempted to benefit from a rule announced by the Court in Batson v. Kentucky more than two years after his conviction had become final, which would have made it easier for him to establish a prima facie case of racial discrimination with respect to a peremptory challenge system. However, the Court held that the defendant was barred from benefiting from the Batson rule, reasoning that the Batson rule constituted a new rule of constitutional interpretation (an “explicit and substantial break with prior precedent”) that was announced after the defendant’s conviction became final.

Two Exceptions to the General Rule of Nonretroactivity

The Teague Court considered two exceptions to the general rule of nonretroactivity for cases on collateral review. Specifically, the Court recognized that new constitutional rules will be applied in habeas cases if one of the following two exceptions applies:


  1. The decision announcing the new rule places certain conduct beyond the reach of criminal law

  2. The decision announcing the new rule recognizes a fundamental procedural right that is “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty”


The Teague Court applied the second exception with modification, explaining that new procedures will be applied in habeas cases only when “the likelihood of an accurate conviction is seriously diminished” without the new procedure. In light of this limitation, the Court concluded that absence of a fair cross-section on the defendant’s jury did not seriously diminish the likelihood of an accurate conviction in the defendant’s case. Therefore, the new rule the defendant urged the Court to apply on habeas was not applicable to his case. In fact, the Court has found that these exceptions will rarely apply.

Nonretroactivity Applied to Capital Sentencing Challenges

Later in 1989, the Court held in Penry v. Lynaugh that the Teague rule of nonretroactivity applies to capital sentencing challenges as well. Nonetheless, the Penry Court granted the defendant’s request that the jury be instructed to consider mitigating evidence of his mental retardation, holding that the requested rule was not new because it was dictated by a previous case. Despite the holding in Penry (which was overruled in 2003 by a case that made the execution of the mentally retarded unconstitutional altogether), the Court has found substantive review barred in other habeas capital sentencing cases.

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