Note to the reader: The following is a rather rough essay-length piece on a recently decided Supreme Court case that I've been working on for the last ten days on so. To prevent my main blog page from becoming unwieldy, I've decided to post the first few paragraphs here and link to the rest offsite. I reserve the right to correct any appalling spelling or grammar errors that I may discover after leaving the piece sit for a while. Hope you enjoy.
To this point in the 2007-2008 term, the Supreme Court has handed down only two decisions interpreting the Constitution. The Court’s latest constitutional decision, Danforth v. Minnesota, hasn't gotten a great deal of media attention, likely because it doesn't directly set down or reject new substantive constitutional requirements. However, the opinions in the case address the question of just what differentiates a substantive constitutional rule that state courts must follow under the Supremacy Clause from other kinds of federal rules that are only binding on federal courts. The debate between the majority and minority opinions on that, as well as the potential for the case to become an important precedent on retroactivity, makes Danforth well worth examining in some depth.
When the Supreme Court announces a new constitutionally-derived rule of criminal procedure, that rule applies in the case at hand and in all similar future cases. However, the question of whether new criminal procedure protections should apply to criminal cases already in progress or completed -- in common legal parlance, whether such new rules should be applied retroactively -- has given the Court fits for decades. Through 1965, all new criminal procedural rights announced by the Court were given full retroactive application to all ongoing and prior criminal cases; a new rule was applied to all cases still on appeal when the rule was announced (ie. cases still on direct review) and prisoners who had completed the appellate process could make arguments on the new rule by challenging their convictions in habeas corpus proceedings (ie. cases on collateral review). But as the Court announced more and more new constitutionally-based criminal protections the justices apparently came to doubt the wisdom of universal retroactivity. In the 1965 case of Linkletter v. Walker, the Court installed a new, considerably more complex retroactivity scheme. The previous bright-line (for better and for worse) approach was junked, replaced by rule-by-rule inquiry "examining the purpose of [each new] rule, the reliance of the States on the prior law, and the effect on the administration of justice of retroactive application of the rule."