Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2019


In Williams v. Taylor, the Supreme Court read a section of the Anti- Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) to change the long-prevailing de novo standard of review of federal habeas petitions by state prisoners. In holding that Congress had denied the lower federal courts the power to grant habeas relief to prisoners in custody pursuant to wrong but reasonable state court decisions, the Court departed from the provision’s text and relied instead on its perception of a generalized congressional purpose to cut back on habeas relief and on the non-redundancy canon of statutory construction. On both scores, the minority opinion had the better argument. Moreover, both opinions overlooked legislative history strongly supporting the conclusion that Congress did not intend to change the standard of review. The case for reading the provision as requiring a departure from the well-established standard of review was thus remarkably weak.

Even if the support for the holding had been stronger, however, the Court should have rejected such a reading for a reason considered by neither opinion: under the majority’s interpretation, the provision allocates federal jurisdiction over the relevant cases in a highly dysfunctional manner. AEDPA (as construed in Williams) does not prohibit all federal courts from granting relief to state prisoners convicted pursuant to wrong but reasonable state court decisions. Had it done so, it would have raised serious constitutional issues. Instead, the statute leaves it to the Supreme Court to review state court criminal convictions for such errors. But allocating this role to the Supreme Court today makes little sense. Precedent and principle support judicial resistance to interpretations of jurisdictional statutes that produce such dysfunctional allocations of judicial power. The Court should reverse Williams at its earliest opportunity. Pending such reversal, the Court should grant review of at least some allegedly “wrong but reasonable” state court convictions in order to vindicate the liberty interests of state prisoners who would not be in custody had those precedents been properly applied and to protect its precedents requiring the reversal of convictions infected with non- harmless constitutional errors.

Publication Citation

American Criminal Law Review, Vol. 56, Num. 1, 1.