It is now common knowledge that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Georgia reversed Judge Scrivens’ decision in Shelton.
Or did it? Let us consider the following and regroup.
Shelton v. DOC, et al., arrived in federal court by way of a habeas petition under 28 USC Section 2254. To say that the Eleventh Circuit’s decision reversed Judge Scrivens’ controversial decision that the Florida drug statute is unconstitutional is not as clear after a careful review. The single most important part of the Eleventh Circuit decision is this: “To be clear, this Court expresses no view on the underlying constitutional question, as we limit our analysis to AEDPA’s narrow inquiry.”
Over the years, section 2254 has been severely limited. This is no different today in this decision. Further, let us all remember that alleged errors in state court are not reviewed by federal courts under the same standard as federal courts use to review errors in federal proceedings. Therefore, even if an issue would result in reversal in a federal criminal proceeding, the same issue may result in affirmance in a 2254 proceeding. As relevant here, the federal court can only grant 2254 relief on a claim that the state court adjudicated on the merits if the state court decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” 28 USC Section 2254(d).
This is the fine point that many seem to be missing.
Judge Scriven found that a per curiam affirmance is not an adjudication on the merits under Florida law, and so the Florida court was not entitled to deference. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed and ruled that it was compelled to presume the state court in Shelton’s case rendered an “adjudication on the merits”. This is therefore entitled to deference in a 2254 proceeding.
Thus, to obtain 2254 relief the burden was on the defendant/petitioner to show that the state court’s ruling on the claim (constitutionality of the state statute) “was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement.” See Harrington v. Richter, 131 S. Ct. 770, 786-87 (2011). Let us analyze it a different way. In this case, the defendant had to point to specific “Supreme Court precedent clearly establishing that the Due Process Clause forbids the partial elimination of men are as an element of crimes analogous to those in Florida’s Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, beyond any possibility for fair minded disagreement.”
At the end of the day, all that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided in Shelton was that the issue was “novel” and there was no Supreme Court precedent directly on point. Therefore the state court’s decision was not unreasonable. There is more litigation left in this matter.