New Judicial Federalism and Federal Courts

(or Prudence, Justice, and Peace)

J├╝rgen Ovens (1623 - 1678)
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently denied habeas corpus relief in Clausell v. Sherrer (3d Cir. 2010).

The issue in Clausell involved a claim of discriminatory use of the peremptory strike by the prosecutor.

Federal law prohibits race-based, sex-based, and religion-based discrimination in this context as a violation of Equal Protection under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986) and subsequent cases.

New Jersey law also prohibits this as a violation of the right to trial by a jury made up of a representative cross section of the community under State v. Gilmore, 103 N.J. 508 (1986).

The Gilmore court sought to expand individual rights under the New Jersey Constitution on state law grounds. Even so, the Third Circuit treated the federal and state tests to determine the discriminatory use of the peremptory strike as substantially similar. Nevertheless, the legal grounds upon which federal and state law base these tests are markedly distinct.

This distinction as between federal and state law illustrates a phenomena known as the "New Judicial Federalism." This involves the process of state courts elevating individual rights above the requirements of federal law. State courts are able to make lasting state precedent if, and only if, they root their decisions on state law grounds that are adequate and independent of federal law. While civil rights activists tend to laud these decisions, law enforcement may tend to criticize them.

Perceptions change, however, as the individual progresses through the layers of appellate and collateral review. State law may provide individuals with a broader scope of protection from state action during the early stages of the criminal system. In exchange, this necessarily places additional burdens on the State during those stages. This post will explain why New Judicial Federalism critics become staunch supporters, and vice verse, later in the process. It also brings to light the judiciary's interest in the administration of justice.

To explain this process, the first track criminal defendants may follow after conviction is "direct appeal." This track allows the individual to pursue claims arising out of the investigation and adjudication. A defendant on this track may seek a remedy from the state's Appellate Courts, the State's Supreme Court, and quite possibly the Supreme Court of the United States. Importantly, when the individual seeks a remedy for an alleged violation of state law that does not raise a question of federal law, the Supreme Court of the United States will not review it on direct appeal. This means the state's supreme court has the final word.

The next track is Post-Conviction Relief ("PCR"). Beginning in trial court, this track allows the defendant to pursue allegations that his lawyer failed to provide effective assistance of counsel. As with direct appeal, the Supreme Court of the United States will not review issues based on adequate and independent state law grounds that do not raise a question of federal law.

The final track is to petition the federal court for a writ of habeas corpus. Here the defendant may claim he is being held as a prisoner in violation of his federal constitutional rights.

New Judicial Federalism empowers state courts to prohibit federal courts from granting habeas corpus relief on collateral review. This is so when the following factors are met. First, a prisoner raises a state law issue in an application for habeas corpus relief. Second, the state law at issue in the application provided greater protection than federal law. Finally, the State met its burden of honoring these enhanced individual rights in the prisoner's particular case.

Under these circumstances, federal courts cannot possibly grant habeas corpus relief. This is because state law surpassed the requirements of federal law. Therefore, violation of federal law is impossible.

Just as state courts can insulate their decisions from federal review on direct appeal and post conviction relief, they can also shield their decisions from collateral habeas corpus review by federal courts.

This dynamic indicates the New Judicial Federalism involves not only protecting individual rights. It also involves preserving state court autonomy from federal courts. That, of course, is at the heart of our federalist system.

Clausell v. Sherrer (3d Cir. 2010)

Click "New Judicial Federalism," labeled in the post footer, for more examples and explanations about this topic.

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