US Supreme Court on Retroactive Effect of New Rules in State Courts

In an important ruling on criminal procedure involving federalism and the retroactive application of Supreme Court decisions in state court criminal cases, the Supreme Court decided in Danforth v. Minnesota that state courts are free to function independently of the federal courts in following the retroactive effect of those rights. In reversing the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision in the case, the US Supreme Court wrote:

New constitutional rules announced by this Court that place certain kinds of primary individual conduct beyond the power of the States to proscribe, as well as watershed” rules of criminal procedure, must be applied in all future trials, all cases pending on direct review, and all federal habeas corpus proceedings. All other new rules of criminal procedure must be applied in future trials and in cases pending on direct review, but may not provide the basis for a federal collateral attack on a state-court conviction. This is the substance of the “Teague rule” described by Justice O’Connor in her plurality opinion in Teague v. Lane, 489 U. S. 288 (1989). The question in this case is whether Teague constrains the authority of state courts to give broader effect to new rules of criminal procedure than is required by that opinion. We have never suggested that it does, and now hold that it does not.

The Danforth case was an appeal of a Minnesota conviction for sexual abuse of a six-year-old boy based on videotaped testimony. At the trial, the victim was found incompetent to testify in court and told his story on videotape. After Danforth’s conviction and unsuccessful appeals, the Supreme Court ruled in Crawford v. Washington that pre-recorded testimony without the possibility of cross-examination is unconstitutional. Danforth filed a second habeas petition, seeking to have the Crawford decision applied retroactively to his case.

Reversing the Minnesota high court by a 7-2 vote, the US Supreme Court said that state courts are not bound by the same limits that apply to federal courts. A state “should be equally free to give its citizens the benefit of our rule in any fashion that does not offend federal law,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy dissented. In a ringing endorsement of federalism, the Supreme Court, having laid down a rule on retroactivity for federal cases in Teague, has ruled that state courts are free to devise their own procedural rules even when they are more generous than federal standards.