The debate in Danforth revolves around whether or not state courts need to respect boundaries set by the Supreme Court. In the 1989 case, Teague v. Lane, the Court held that their opinions cannot be retroactively applied by federal courts to grant defendants a new trial. In Danforth, the Court is asked to decide whether or not state courts have the power to hear those cases in order to give defendants another shot at justice. Orin Kerr phrases the debate well over at the Volokh Conspiracy:
Let’s say the U.S. Supreme Court creates some new rules that help criminal defendants, and a prisoner wants to come into state court and try to get the benefit of the new rules. Does the Teague limitation apply? Or can can individual state courts craft broader rules of jurisdiction that give defendants another bite at the apple in state court even if Teague bars that in federal court?
Oral arguments in the case started off conventionally but quickly evolved into something far more exciting. The Justices started a lengthy debate that initially pitted Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts against Justices Ginsburg and Stevens. Take a look at this interesting and humorous dialogue:
JUSTICE SCALIA: What does a new rule mean? It means it didn’t used to be the rule, but it is the rule after this case. Now, you can argue, and there are many originalists who would agree with you, that there shouldn’t be such a thing as a new rule, but once you’ve — once you’ve agreed that there can be new rules, if this Court says this is a new rule, we acknowledge it wasn’t the rule before, but it’s new, it will not have retroactive effect, it seems to me that the State would be contradicting that ruling by saying oh, in our view the law used to be exactly what you say it newly is.
MR. BUTLER: But the question, Your Honor –
JUSTICE STEVENS: But your basic position is that we should not be making new law. We should be — we might have misinterpreted the law over the years, but, basically, this Court has no power to change the text of the Constitution or its meaning. I guess Justice Scalia’s position is we have all that power in the world.
JUSTICE SCALIA: My position is we have asserted all that power in the world.
This case is a funny example of ‘conservative’ Justices arguing against states’ rights. The ‘conservative’ bloc is supporting a reading of the Constitution that disallows states from created their own rules that grant additional habeas relief to imprisoned individuals. ‘Liberals,’ on the other hand, are trying to grant states the right to manipulate certain Supreme Court rulings.
Based on oral arguments, it looks like the liberals could win this one. Justice Kennedy seems to be under the impression that states should be allowed to extend additional protections to individuals that extend beyond the ones in federal court. I expect this case to be a 5-4, probably in favor of Danforth.