Published on: Monday, November 6, 2017

This morning, in Kernan v. Cuero, No. 16-1468, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous per curiam opinion reversing a decision of Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that had granted habeas relief in the form of specific performance of a plea agreement.  Curero pleaded guilty to a criminal complaint in California state court which would have had a maximum sentence of 14 years and 4 months.  Prior to sentencing, the trial court granted the state’s motion to amend the complaint to allow for a higher sentence (25 years), and allowed Cuero to withdraw his plea.  Cuero pleaded guilty again and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.  After Curero’s conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal, and his state habeas petition was denied, he filed a petition for federal habeas corpus relief, which was denied.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the denial of habeas relief and held that the state trial court had “acted contrary to clearly established Supreme Court law” by “refusing to enforce the original plea agreement” with its maximum sentence of 14 years and four months.   The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit because no decision from the Supreme Court “clearly establishes” that the state court was required “to impose the lower sentence that the parties originally expected,” instead of permitting the state’s “sentencing raising amendment where the defendant was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.”   Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA),  a federal court is forbidden from granting habeas relief to a state prisoner on the merits of a claim unless, as relevant here, the state court’s adjudication of that claim resulted in a decision that was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.”  28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) (emphasis added). 

The Court’s 8-page per curiam opinion is set forth in Court’s orders issued today, after page 8 of the orders.  The Training Division provides resource materials to  federal habeas counsel through the Capital Defense Network