Supreme Court Summarily Reverses USCA6 in Capital Habeas Case

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning once again reversed a federal court of appeals, this time the Sixth Circuit, for exceeding the limits placed on its authority in Congress’s landmark 1996 reform of federal habeas corpus. Mays v. Hines, 20-507, involves a Tennessee murder case where the defendant was convicted on overwhelming evidence of stabbing to death an employee in a motel and stealing the motel cash, along with the employee’s car.

In state collateral review, the witness who discovered the body finally admitted that he had lied about the reason he was at the motel. He was there for an illicit rendezvous. But this had very little to do with the strength of the evidence that Hines was the murderer, and so the state courts left the judgment intact.

The federal district court rejected Hines’s habeas corpus petition. A divided panel of the Sixth Circuit (2-1) then wrongfully second-guessed the reasonable decision of the state courts. Congress authorizes the federal courts to overturn state court decisions in this context only if they are clearly wrong.

Today, the Supreme Court decided that the Sixth Circuit’s decision is the one that is clearly wrong — so clearly that merits briefing and oral argument are not necessary to reverse. The decision appears to be 8-1. Only Justice Sotomayor is noted as dissenting. She gives no reasons.