The Supreme Court’s habeas corpus retroactivity jurisprudence has never been a model of clarity or fairness. Ordinarily, if a case is on direct review, a court is bound to apply constitutional law as it currently stands, not the law as it stood at the time of trial, conviction, or sentencing. This rule derives from Griffith v. Kentucky, in which the Supreme Court held that the Constitution requires that all new constitutional rules apply to cases on direct review. However, in Teague v. Lane, the Court distinguished direct and collateral review, holding that new constitutional rules do not apply to cases on collateral review unless they fall within one of two exceptions. The Court has justified this approach to retroactivity by emphasizing comity, respect for the judicial process of the state courts, and finality, the closure a judgment of conviction is supposed to bring. This retroactivity test is not only complex but also produces disparate impacts on similarly situated individuals. For this reason and many others, legal scholars have long criticized the Teague doctrine; as Justice Gorsuch recently acknowledged, the Teague doctrine has been “mystifying . . . from its inception.” And in May 2021, the Court walked back the thirty-year-old doctrine in Edwards v. Vannoy, recognizing that one of the two Teague exceptions is “moribund” and “retain[s] no vitality.”
Though scholars have previously criticized the Teague doctrine and offered alternatives, this Note is the first to provide a substantial critique of the Teague doctrine’s underlying assumptions regarding finality and comity interests. After comparing related finality and comity doctrines, this Note argues that the current Teague doctrine overvalues both interests, and a reimagining of the retroactivity framework should begin with reconsidering the foundational roles of those interests. This Note proposes one such framework—one that is more generous about granting the retroactivity remedy for violations of constitutional rights. Under this proposed framework, new constitutional rules should always apply retroactively on state collateral review and federal habeas review of federal convictions. The proposed framework also revises the Teague new-rule doctrine and suggests that a state’s discrimination against a federal right vitiates its comity interest, weighing in favor of the retroactivity remedy. This Note concludes with a discussion of Edwards v. Vannoy, suggesting that the case highlights the flaws of the Teague doctrine and the need to rethink the foundations of retroactivity and to reground the doctrine in first principles.
* Incoming Law Clerk, United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit; J.D., Stanford Law School, 2020. Many thanks to Norman Spaulding for his invaluable guidance, encouragement, and advice throughout the research and writing process. Thank you also to Robert Weisberg for his support and feedback and to Nancy King for her insightful comments. Lastly, thank you to the diligent and thoughtful editors of the Stanford Law Review for their many hours spent on improving this Note, particularly David Papirnik, Jennifer Teitell, Sam Ward-Packard, Brian Erickson, Olivia Glass, Connor Hoge, Eric Phung, Hannah Nelson, Sarah Simon, and the Volume 73 Notes Committee.