Danforth v. Minnesota (06-8273)

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Oral argument: October 31, 2007

Appealed from: Supreme Court of Minnesota (December 12, 2006)


Stephen Danforth was convicted of first degree criminal sexual misconduct in a Minnesota state criminal trial that included videotaped testimonial evidence from Danforth's victim. After Danforth's conviction became final, the United States Supreme Court found that use of such evidence violated a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him. But the Court later found this decision did not apply retroactively to convictions finalized before the decision was announced. The court made this decision using Supreme Court retroactivity standards. Danforth now asks the Supreme Court to decide whether a state post-conviction court can use state retroactivity standards to apply a new Supreme Court decision on criminal procedure to a final conviction, or if it must use the retroactivity standards the Supreme Court has established. This decision will clarify the boundaries between state and federal authority in state post-conviction proceedings that address federal questions.

Question presented

Are state supreme courts required to use the standard announced in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), to determine whether United States Supreme Court decisions apply retroactively to state-court criminal cases, or may a state court apply state-law- or state-constitution-based retroactivity tests that afford application of Supreme Court decisions to a broader class of criminal defendants than the class defined by Teague?



Are state courts compelled to use the federal retroactivity standards outlined by the United States Supreme Court in Teague v. Lane to determine the retroactivity of a new federal rule of criminal procedure, or may the state courts devise their own standards for determining retroactivity?



The following facts are taken from the opinion of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in which Stephen Danforth's first appeal was denied. In 1996, a Minnesota jury in Hennepin County District Court found Stephen Danforth guilty of first degree criminal sexual misconduct for the sexual abuse of a six-year-old boy named J.S. At trial, the court found that J.S. was incompetent to testify at trial and admitted a videotaped interview in which J.S. said Danforth sexually abused him into evidence.

On appeal, Danforth challenged the admission of the videotaped interview, claiming it violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him. The Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected this claim, finding that the videotape was sufficiently reliable and properly admitted under Minn.Stat. � 595.02, subd. 3. According to this Minnesota statute, out-of-court statements, such as videotaped testimony, in which a child under ten years of age alleges any act of sexual contact, may be admissible if the child is "unavailable" as a witness and there is independent corroborative evidence of the act. The Minnesota Supreme Court denied Danforth's appeal of that ruling. Danforth's later petitions for further review in state courts and for federal habeas corpus relief were also denied.

Danforth found new grounds for appeal in 2004, when the United States Supreme Court decided Crawford v. Washington. Crawford held that out-of-court statements that are "testimonial" in nature, like the videotaped interview with J.S., violate the Confrontation Clause of the Constitution. Therefore, such statements are inadmissible as evidence in criminal cases unless the defendant previously had the opportunity to cross-examine the witness. Danforth renewed his appeals in state court on the basis of the Crawford decision.

The district court and the Minnesota Court of Appeals again denied Danforth's appeal, but the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to hear Danforth's Confrontation Clause claim. The issue the court addressed, however, was not whether the videotaped interview with J.S. violated Danforth's Sixth Amendment rights, but whether the Crawford decision had come too late to help Danforth's case.

The Minnesota Supreme Court stated that because Danforth's conviction had become final before Crawford was decided, the rule Crawford announced could only apply to his case if it met the United States Supreme Court's test for retroactive application established in Teague v. Lane. The Minnesota Supreme Court said that it was required to apply Teague's principles when analyzing the retroactivity of a rule of federal constitutional criminal procedure. It then found that, under Teague, the interpretation of the Confrontation Clause given in Crawford did not apply retroactively to Danforth's case.

Danforth petitioned the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari on two grounds: first, to determine whether state courts were bound by the Teague retroactivity standard or were free to apply their own state-law-based retroactivity tests; second, to determine whether the Crawford rule met the Teague standard for retroactivity and therefore applied to Danforth's case.

The United States Supreme Court resolved the second issue in a separate case, deciding that Crawford did not apply retroactively under Teague. On May 21, 2007, the Court granted certiorari to determine whether state courts must apply the Teague retroactivity standard.



When the United States Supreme Court finds a criminal trial procedure to be unconstitutional and announces a new federal rule of criminal procedure, what happens to persons already convicted under the old, unconstitutional rule in state criminal trials? Do they benefit from the new rule? And who-state supreme courts or the United States Supreme Court-decides this?

The Supreme Court answered these questions in two cases in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989). Teague held that, with two narrow exceptions, new rules of criminal procedure would not apply to cases already final. Final cases come before state or federal courts in state post-conviction or federal habeas corpus proceedings, respectively. Teague itself was a federal habeas corpus proceeding, and Teague's standards clearly apply to these cases. But Teague did not say whether states had to follow its standards for final cases in state post-conviction proceedings.

The states formed their own conclusions. Several states decided they had to apply Teague's retroactivity standards for new federal rules of criminal procedure, according to the amicus brief in support of Minnesota. Brief Amicus Curiae of the States of Alaska, Colorado, et al., in Support of Respondent at 28. Other states decided Teague did not apply to state post-conviction proceedings and followed their own retroactivity standards for new federal rules, according to the petitioner's brief. Brief for the Petitioner at 24-26.

Stephen Danforth's argument in his brief to the Supreme Court is that state supreme courts do not have to follow Teague in deciding whether to apply a new federal rule of criminal procedure retroactively to a case on post-conviction review. Although states cannot give a new federal rule less retroactive reach than Teague does, they can provide broader protection.

The State of Minnesota disagrees. It says, in its brief to the Court, that state courts must follow Teague when they apply new federal rules of criminal procedure. Minnesota and states submitting an amicus brief in its support hold that a uniform federal standard for new federal rules arising under the U.S. Constitution is desirable, if not constitutionally required.

The states are divided on which court-the United States Supreme Court or the various state supreme courts-should control in this area. Several states, in an amicus brief supporting neither party, emphasize concerns related to federalism. These states argue that imposing a national retroactivity standard on state courts acting in state proceedings infringes on the states' authority over their criminal justice systems.

This case also exposes tensions between vindication of constitutional rights and finality of criminal convictions. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says in its brief supporting Danforth, "[S]tate courts usually are obligated to enforce federal rights and, certainly are never forbidden to do so." Brief in Support of the Petitioner at 2 [emphasis in original]. But Minnesota's brief makes clear that the door the ACLU wishes to keep open for vindication of prisoners' constitutional rights seems like the jailhouse door itself in the minds of prosecutors and victims of crime. Brief for the Respondent at 28-30.

The tensions between finality and individual rights are evident even within states. For example, supreme courts from three states that do not follow Teague have said finality can be protected at the state-court level even with more flexible standards than Teague provides. Brief for the Petitioner at 24-26. But two of the states these courts represent (South Dakota and Missouri) have signed on to the amicus brief for Minnesota. And Minnesota itself warns that flexible state standards should not be permitted to endanger the state and citizens' interest in the finality of criminal trials. Brief for the Respondent at 30.

Underlying these views are different conceptions of the nature of retroactivity in the law and of the connection between retroactivity and an associated new rule of criminal procedure. Scholars have noted that "retroactivity has become a particularly troublesome issue" in the criminal procedure context. Lyn S. Entzeroth, Reflections on Fifteen Years of the Teague v. Lane Retroactivity Paradigm: A Study of the Persistence, The Pervasiveness, and the Perversity of the Court's Doctrine, 35 N.M.L. Rev. 161, 166 (2005). This case gives the Supreme Court the opportunity to clarify Teague's purpose and the place of retroactivity in the broader legal landscape.

The Court's decision in this case may have particular impact because of a series of new constitutional rules the Court has issued concerning state sentencing practices. These cases, which include Apprendi v. New Jersey and Blakely v. Washington, found several sentencing practices to be unconstitutional. Because the practices were widespread, these new rules cast doubt on the sentences of numerous prisoners across the country. The practices also spanned decades. Therefore, many such convictions are likely to be final. The outcome of this case will either narrow or expand state responsibility and options for dealing with these old cases if the Supreme Court finds the new sentencing rules non-retroactive under Teague.




In Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 310-13 (1989), the United States Supreme Court enacted a new standard for determining the retroactivity of new rules of federal constitutional criminal procedure to cases on collateral review. In a prior decision, Griffith v. Kentucky, 479 U.S. 314, 328 (1987), the Court had overruled its previous retroactivity standard with regard to cases at trial and on direct review.

In Griffith, the Court determined that new federal constitutional rules of criminal procedure were to be applied retroactively to all cases, state and federal, that were pending on direct review or not yet final. Id. at 328. Unlike Griffith, the Teague decision did not explicitly state whether its standard was meant to be applied by all courts, state and federal, in post-conviction proceedings. Teague, 489 U.S. 288.

In its opinion confirming Stephen Danforth's conviction, the Minnesota Supreme Court stated that it was "required to apply Teague's principles when analyzing the retroactivity of a rule of federal constitutional criminal procedure." Danforth v. State, 718 N.W.2d 451, 455 (2006). Danforth disagrees, arguing that the Teague standard is only binding on federal courts in habeas corpus review, not on state courts in state post-conviction proceedings. Brief for Petitioner at 6.

Comity and Finality Interests

Danforth argues that Teague is meant to apply only to federal habeas corpus review of state-court convictions, not to state post-conviction review of state convictions. Brief for Petitioner at 11. For support, Danforth points to the origins of the Teague standard. Id. According to Danforth, Teague was not based on the purpose of the new rule at issue, but on "the purposes for which the writ of habeas corpus is made available." Teague, 489 U.S. at 306. The Court was mainly concerned with the interests of comity and finality when it chose not to allow federal judges to overturn reasonable state-court decisions on the basis of constitutional rules that were not in existence at the time the conviction became final. See id. at 309. Danforth finds this reasoning can only apply when a federal court reviews a state-court conviction, and that it has no application when a state-court conviction is reviewed by a higher court in the same state. Id. at 12.

Danforth claims there are two possible sources of authority for the Teague rule, both of which are binding only on federal courts. Id. One possibility is that Teague is based on the Court's interpretation of the federal habeas corpus statute, 28 U.S.C. � 2254, which defines a state prisoner's right to federal review of his state-court conviction. Id. at 13. Another is that Teague was a policy decision supported by the Court's supervisory power over the federal courts. Id. Therefore, according to Danforth, the Teague rule cannot be binding on the state courts because state courts derive their power to review state convictions in collateral review proceedings from the state legislatures, not the federal habeas statute, and because the Court's supervisory power applies only to the federal courts. Id. at 14.

Danforth also claims that Teague cannot be a constitutionally based command to all courts, because it can be waived and/or forfeited. Id. at 16. The Teague rule is, instead, a procedural defense available to the state as a party to federal habeas review of state-court convictions. Id. Danforth cites a number of ways in which the state can lose its right to invoke the Teague rule during federal habeas review. Id. Because the Teague rule can be surrendered so easily and the state can choose whether to invoke the Teague rule as a defense, Danforth questions whether the rule can actually be considered a constitutional limitation on the authority of state courts to entertain federal constitutional claims. Id. at 16-17.

For the State of Minnesota, finality and comity interests are at stake regardless of whether collateral review of state-court convictions occurs in state or federal courts. Brief for Respondent at 29. The Teague standard serves the interest of finality by not allowing the final judgments of state courts to be disturbed each time a new constitutional rule is announced. Id. at 26. Minnesota believes that this respect for finality goes beyond the concern for comity, and claims that every federal circuit court to consider the issue has held Teague to apply to both state and federal cases on collateral review. Id. at 27-28. In this view, Teague "recognizes a value in the integrity of final judgments that is not dependent on forum." Id. at 28.

Minnesota asserts that the federal retroactivity doctrine does not rest on the federal habeas statute. Id. at 16. Retroactivity is a matter of choosing which law, old or new, to apply in a given case. See id. The Teague standard cannot be based on an interpretation of the federal habeas statute because the statute, as it existed when the rule was announced, provides no "textual support" for the principles adopted by the Court. Id. According to this view, federal habeas review and the Teague standard are separate inquiries. See id.

Minnesota also denies that Teague rests on the supervisory powers of the Court, stating that the limited scope of this power is not an appropriate source of authority for retroactivity in light of Griffith's constitutional rule. See id. at 17. Instead, Minnesota links Teague to Griffith's constitutional mandate and refers to the "Griffith-Teague retroactivity doctrine." See id. at 17-18.

That Teague can be waived or forfeited by the state does not affect its status as binding federal authority. See id. at 31. It is not uncommon for constitutional provisions to be subject to waiver by one party, or for constitutional rights to be forfeited by a failure to assert that right in an appropriate manner. See id. The state, as a party to collateral review, may waive Teague, but a state-court judge may not, without such waiver, decline to apply it. See id. When a state court deviates from the Teague rule, it grants relief that is inconsistent with the federal and state interests underlying that rule. See id.

Uniformity and federalism

Danforth claims that Teague sets a constitutionally required minimum standard of retroactivity but does not prohibit the states from giving United States Supreme Court decisions broader retroactive application than federal law requires. See Brief for Petitioner at 19. States must meet the retroactivity floor set by Teague, as required by the Constitution and federal law. See id. They cannot limit retroactive application of federal law by applying new federal constitutional rules of criminal procedure to fewer cases than the Teague standard would require. See id.

Under Teague, new federal constitutional rules of criminal procedure are not to be applied retroactively on collateral review unless they fall into one of two narrowly defined exceptions. Teague, 489 U.S. at 410-413. If a new rule qualifies as one of these exceptions, however, it is applied to all cases, both pending and final, and by both state and federal courts. See Brief for Petitioner at 19. Danforth claims that Teague's definition of a new rule and its accompanying exceptions creates a minimum standard to which both federal and state courts must adhere. Id. It does not prohibit the states from retroactively applying new rules, even those that do not qualify as exceptions, to a broader class of cases in state post-conviction proceedings. See id.

In support of this position, the American Civil Liberties Union, in its amicus brief, refers to the Griffith and Teague retroactivity doctrines as choice-of-law methodologies. Brief Amicus Curiae of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Minnesota in Support of Petitioner at 6. All courts, both state and federal, are required to apply the constitutionally mandated choice-of-law framework set forth in Griffith to cases at trial and on direct appeal. Id. at 7. The ACLU claims that in state post-conviction proceedings, however, the state court is entitled to employ its own choice-of-law methodology, as long as it does so evenhandedly and fairly. See id.

Minnesota argues that the question of retroactivity cannot be separated from the constitutional rule at issue. Brief for Respondent at 24, FN11. According to Minnesota, "a retroactivity decision is implicit in every decision [the] Court announces" and "the concept of retroactivity is inherent in the judicial decision-making process." Id. at 9. In this view, the Court's retroactivity doctrine, as stated in Griffith and Teague, is an exercise of binding federal authority over the reach of the Court's constitutional rulings and is not open to interpretation by the states. See id. at 17. If the states wish to create "enhanced rights" for their own citizens, they must do so under state law and subject to state political and legal processes. Id. at 32. In this way, state courts and legislatures can be held politically and legally accountable for their decisions. See id. at 34.

Minnesota posits that Teague is an instrument of federal constitutional supremacy and uniformity, assuring that similarly situated defendants in different states will have the same federal constitutional rights. Id. at 24-25. One concern is that allowing the states to create their own rules of retroactivity could give rise to due process claims. See id. at 24. Similarly situated defendants in different states would be able to claim that they are entitled to benefit from the same rights. See id. Another is that the Court would be put in the position of having to ratify disparate applications of federal constitutional rights as a result of different interpretations by the state courts. See id. at 23. Minnesota asserts that "the federal constitution should not vary depending on the state in which it is applied." See id. at 25.



The United States Supreme Court must determine whether state courts can use state standards to decide whether a new Supreme Court rule of criminal procedure will apply retroactively to final cases on state post-conviction review. A decision that states can use their own standards will give the states more freedom and responsibility while creating some uncertainty about the finality of certain criminal convictions. If the Supreme Court holds that state courts must, instead, use the Court's Teague retroactivity standard in these instances will constrain state authority and eliminate a potential avenue for relief for persons convicted under constitutionally suspect procedures.

The outcome in this case will turn in part on whether the Court believes retroactivity is part of, or closely linked to, the federal rule to which it applies. If the Court believes it is, it is more likely to impose Teague's standards on the states. If the Court sees retroactivity as a separate procedural issue, it is likely to leave retroactivity decisions to state discretion.



Prepared by: Ellen Loeb and Valerie Robart

Edited by: Richard Beaulieu


The authors would like to thank Professors John Blume and Kevin Clermont for their invaluable insights into this case.

Additional Sources


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