Published on: Thursday, October 7, 2021

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in Brown v. Davenport, No. 20-826. This case involves the interplay between AEDPA and the harmless error standard applicable to constitutional violations. 

On direct appeal, both state and federal courts apply the defendant-friendly Chapman harmless error test to constitutional errors. See Chapman v. California, 507 U.S. 619 (1967)(holding the state must carry the burden of showing that a constitutional error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt).  In contrast, a federal habeas court must assess the prejudicial impact of non-structural constitutional error during a state-criminal trial under the actual prejudice standard from Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993)(holding the test for determining whether a constitutional error was harmless on habeas review is whether the defendant suffered “actual prejudice”). The Brecht standard is more stringent than the Chapman standard.  After Brecht was decided, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which prohibits relief on a claim that was adjudicated on the merits by a state court unless the adjudication “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).

Mr. Davenport was tried before a Michigan jury on a charge of “open murder.” During the trial, he was visibly shackled with a waist chain, a wrist shackle on his left hand, and ankle shackles—though the trial court made no on-the-record finding to justify the shackling. After Mr. Davenport was convicted, an intermediate state appellate court remanded his case back to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing on the shackling claim. Although five jurors testified that they saw the restraints, and two more heard comments about the restraints, the trial court concluded there was no error. The Michigan Supreme Court affirmed, holding the unconstitutional shackling was harmless error.

Mr. Davenport’s federal habeas petition was denied in the district court. But the Sixth Circuit reversed and issued a conditional writ after finding that a due process violation arising from visible shackling at trial was actually prejudicial, applying the harmless error standard from Brecht. In granting relief, the Sixth Circuit held that “both Brecht and AEDPA must be satisfied,” and that a federal habeas court may find both standards satisfied by applying the more stringent Brecht standard.

The Supreme Court granted the Michigan Attorney General’s certiorari petition to resolve the following circuit split: 

May a federal habeas court grant relief based solely on its conclusion that the Brecht test is satisfied, as the Sixth Circuit held, or must the court also find that the state court’s Chapman application was unreasonable under § 2254(d)(1), as the Second, Third, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have held?

Section 2254(d)(1)’s unreasonableness standard is a significant obstacle to relief in federal habeas proceedings initiated by state clients. Brecht’s harmless error standard already reflects the Court’s judgment that a state’s interest in finality and sovereignty over its criminal matters justifies a more stringent standard than Chapman.  The Court will now decide whether the prisoner’s burden to vindicate his constitutional rights should be even heavier.

Merits briefing is available on the Supreme Court’s website here.  A transcript of the argument is available here.