549 U.S. 70 (2006), 05-785, Carey v. Musladin

Docket Nº:05-785.
Citation:549 U.S. 70, 127 S.Ct. 649, 166 L.Ed.2d 482
Opinion Judge:Thomas, Justice
Party Name:Thomas L. CAREY, Warden, Petitioner, v. Mathew MUSLADIN.
Case Date:December 11, 2006
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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549 U.S. 70 (2006)

127 S.Ct. 649, 166 L.Ed.2d 482

Thomas L. CAREY, Warden, Petitioner,

v.

Mathew MUSLADIN.

No. 05-785.

United States Supreme Court

December 11, 2006

Argued October 11, 2006.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

[127 S.Ct. 650] Syllabus

At respondent Musladin's murder trial, members of the victim's family sat in the front row of the spectators' gallery wearing buttons displaying the victim's image. The trial court denied Musladin's motion to order the family members not to wear the buttons. The California Court of Appeal upheld Musladin's conviction, stating that he had to show actual or inherent prejudice to succeed on the buttons claim; citing Holbrook v. Flynn, 475 U.S. 560, 106 S.Ct. 1340, 89 L.Ed.2d 525, as providing the test for inherent prejudice; and ruling that he had not satisfied that test. The Federal District Court denied Musladin's habeas petition, but the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded, finding that the state court's decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law," 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(1), as determined by this Court in Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 96 S.Ct. 1691, 48 L.Ed.2d 126, and Flynn, supra.

Held:

The Ninth Circuit improperly concluded that the California Court of Appeal's decision was contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by this Court. Pp. 74-77.

(a) Because "clearly established Federal law" in §2254(d)(1) "refers to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of this Court's decisions as of the time of the relevant state-court decision," Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389, federal habeas relief may be granted here if the California Court of Appeal's decision was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of this Court's applicable holdings. P. 74.

(b) This Court addressed the effect of courtroom practices on defendants' fair-trial rights in Williams, in which the State compelled the defendant to stand trial in prison clothes, and Flynn, in which the State seated uniformed state troopers in the row of spectators' seats immediately behind the defendant at trial. In both cases, which dealt with government-sponsored practices, the Court noted that some practices are so inherently prejudicial that they must be justified by an "essential state" policy or interest. E.g., Williams, supra, at 505. P. 75.

(c) In contrast to state-sponsored courtroom practices, the effect on a defendant's fair-trial rights of the spectator conduct [127 S.Ct. 651] to which Musladin objects is an open question in this Court's jurisprudence. The Court has never addressed a claim that such private-actor courtroom conduct was so inherently prejudicial that it deprived a defendant of a fair trial

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or applied the test for inherent prejudice in Williams and Flynn to spectators' conduct. Indeed, part of that test— asking whether the practices furthered an essential state interest— suggests that those cases apply only to state-sponsored practices. Reflecting the lack of guidance from this Court, lower courts have diverged widely in their treatment of defendants' spectator-conduct claims. Given the lack of applicable holdings from this Court, it cannot be said that the state court "unreasonably appli[ed] . . . clearly established Federal law." Pp. 76-77.

427 F.3d 653, vacated and remanded.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Altto, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., post, p. 78, Kennedy, J., post, p. 80, and Souter, J., post, p. 81, filed opinions concurring in the judgment.

COUNSEL

Gregory A. Ott, Deputy Attorney General of California, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, Mary Jo Graves, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Robert R. Anderson, former Chief Assistant Attorney General, Gerald A. Engler, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Donald E. de Nicola, Deputy Solicitor General, and Peggy S. Ruffra, Supervising Deputy Attorney General.

David W. Fermino, by appointment of the Court, post, p. 806, argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent. [*]

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OPINION

Thomas, Justice.

This Court has recognized that certain courtroom practices are so inherently prejudicial that they deprive the defendant of a fair trial. Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 503-506, 96 S.Ct. 1691, 48 L.Ed.2d 126 (1976); Holbrook v. Flynn, 475 U.S. 560, 568, 106 S.Ct. 1340, 89 L.Ed.2d 525 (1986). In this case, a state court held that buttons displaying the victim's image worn by the victim's family during respondent's trial did not deny respondent his right to a fair trial. We must decide whether that holding was contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, as determined by this Court. 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(1). We hold that it was not.

I

On May 13, 1994, respondent Mathew Musladin shot and killed Tom Studer outside the home of Musladin's estranged wife, Pamela. At trial, Musladin admitted that he killed Studer but argued that he did so in self-defense. A California jury rejected Musladin's self-defense argument and convicted him of first-degree murder and three related offenses.

During Musladin's trial, several members of Studer's family sat in the front row of the spectators' gallery. On at least some of the trial's 14 days, some members of Studer's family wore buttons with a photo of Studer on them. 1 Prior to opening [127 S.Ct. 652] statements, Musladin's counsel moved the court to order the Studer family not to wear the buttons during the trial. The court denied the motion, stating that it saw "no

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possible prejudice to the defendant." App. to Pet. for Cert. 74a.

Musladin appealed his conviction to the California Court of Appeal in 1997. He argued that the buttons deprived him of his Fourteenth Amendment and Sixth Amendment rights. At the outset of its analysis, the Court of Appeal stated that Musladin had to show actual or inherent prejudice to succeed on his claim and cited Flynn, supra, at 570, 106 S.Ct. 1340, as providing the test for inherent prejudice. The Court of Appeal, quoting part of Flynn's test, made clear that it "consider[ed] the wearing of photographs of victims in a courtroom to be an 'impermissible factor coming into play,' the practice of which should be discouraged." App. to Pet. for Cert. 75a (quoting Flynn, supra, at 570, 106 S.Ct. 1340). Nevertheless, the court concluded, again quoting Flynn, supra, at 571, 106 S.Ct. 1340, that the buttons had not "branded defendant 'with an unmistakable mark of guilt' in the eyes of the jurors" because "[t]he simple photograph of Tom Studer was unlikely to have been taken as a sign of anything other than the normal grief occasioned by the loss of [a] family member." App. to Pet. for Cert. 75a.

At the conclusion of the state appellate process, Musladin filed an application for writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court pursuant to §2254. In his application, Musladin argued that the buttons were inherently prejudicial and that the California Court of Appeal erred by holding that the Studers' wearing of the buttons did not deprive him of a fair trial. The District Court denied habeas relief but granted a certificate of appealability on the buttons issue.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded for issuance of the writ, finding that under §2254 the state court's decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." §2254(d)(1). According to the Court of Appeals, this Court's decisions in Williams and Flynn clearly established a rule of federal law applicable to Musladin's case

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Musladin v. Lamarque, 427 F.3d 653, 656-658 (2005). Specifically, the Court of Appeals cited its own precedent in support of its conclusion that Williams and Flynn clearly established the test for inherent prejudice applicable to spectators' courtroom conduct. 427 F.3d, at 657-658 (citing Norris v. Risley, 918 F.2d 828 (C.A.9 1990)). The Court of Appeals held that the state court's application of a test for inherent prejudice that differed from the one stated in Williams and Flynn "was contrary to clearly established federal law and constituted an unreasonable application of that law." 427 F.3d, at 659–660. The Court of Appeals denied rehearing en banc. 427 F.3d 647 (2005). We granted certiorari, 547 U.S. 1069, 126 S.Ct. 1769, 164 L.Ed.2d 515 (2006), and now vacate.

II

Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 110 Stat. 1219:

"(d) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of...

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