Criminal Law - Federal Habeas Review under AEDPA - Sixth Circuit Interprets "Clearly Established Federal Law" Narrowly

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CRIMINAL LAW--FEDERAL HABEAS REVIEW UNDER AEDPA--SIXTH CIRCUIT INTERPRETS "CLEARLY ESTABLISHED FEDERAL LAW" NARROWLY.--Bunch v. Smith, 685 F.3d 546 (6th Cir. 2012).

Federal habeas jurisprudence has evolved rapidly since the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (1) (AEDPA). Most of that evolution has involved the new standard of review that AEDPA established for petitions by state prisoners, which allows a federal court to grant habeas relief from a state court decision only when it finds that the decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law." (2) Since AEDPA's passage, the Supreme Court's interpretation of this standard has gradually grown stricter as the Court has shifted its emphasis from the "contrary to" and "unreasonable application of" clauses to the "clearly established" clause. (3)

Recently, in Bunch v. Smith, (4) the Sixth Circuit denied habeas relief to a juvenile serving an allegedly unconstitutional sentence (5) by denying that any applicable "clearly established Federal law" existed at all, ending its habeas analysis at that threshold question. (6) That approach tracked the Supreme Court's recent AEDPA-standard jurisprudence, which interprets precedent narrowly, distinguishes it from the case at hand, and denies relief without any analysis of the "contrary to" and "unreasonable application" prongs. While this approach helps the Court enforce the deference to state court decisions that was a motivating principle of AEDPA, it represents a departure from the first decade of post-AEDPA law. Bunch illustrates this departure--and shows that the Court's recent, aggressive effort to enforce AEDPA's strict standard on lower federal courts, including the contrarian Sixth Circuit, may be working.

In 2001, sixteen-year-old Chaz Bunch and two accomplices kidnapped, raped, and robbed M.K., a twenty-two-year-old female student. (7) Just after M.K. got out of her car on her way to work, a masked man accosted her at gunpoint and forced her back into her vehicle, which he then drove away, following a second car containing Bunch and another attacker. (8) Both cars continued to a gravel lot, where Bunch and the first man orally, anally, and vaginally raped M.K., while the third man robbed her. (9) They eventually ended the attack and put M.K. back into her car, which she drove away. (10) The police arrested the three men based on their car's license plate number, which M.K. memorized during the assault. (11)

The state trial court convicted Bunch on ten counts. (12) Bunch was then sentenced to the maximum term for each count, to be served consecutively for a total of eighty-nine years' imprisonment. (13) The judge told Bunch, "I just have to make sure that you don't get out of the penitentiary. I've got to do everything I can to keep you there, because it would be a mistake to have you back in society." (14)

Bunch appealed his sentence, arguing, in part, that the court had violated his Eighth Amendment rights by sentencing him to effective life without parole despite his juvenile status and the nonhomicide nature of his crimes. (15) The Ohio Court of Appeals rejected this argument and affirmed the trial court's judgment, (16) after which the Ohio Supreme Court denied Bunch's petition for discretionary review. (17)

In 2008, Bunch filed a habeas petition in federal district court, again on the theory that his sentence was cruel and unusual. (18) In 2009, the magistrate judge assigned to the case recommended that the district court delay a decision until the Supreme Court decided Graham v. Florida, (19) in which the Court would rule on the constitutionality of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences for nonhomicide offenders such as Bunch. (20) The district judge rejected this recommendation and the petition, reasoning that since the two cases were factually distinguishable--one involved an explicit JLWOP sentence, the other merely a "functional" JLWOP sentence--citing any law "clearly established" in Graham would be of no avail to Bunch. …