In a new pro-defendant twist on federalism, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that state courts are free to give criminal defendants the benefit of new constitutional developments, even when federal courts would be foreclosed from doing so, reports the New York Times. Over the dissent of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the court ruled in favor of Stephen Danforth of Minnesota, who was convicted of sexually abusing a child in 1996. Years later, Danforth, went back to state court seeking the benefit of a 2004 Supreme Court decision that enhanced the right of defendants to confront their accusers in open court. The six-year-old victim had not appeared at the trial, instead giving a videotaped interview.
The high court held that in administering their own criminal justice systems, states are free to be as protective of federal constitutional rights as they care to be. “States are independent sovereigns with plenary authority to make and enforce their own laws as long as they do not infringe on federal constitutional guarantees,” said Justice John Paul Stevens. The case that barred state inmates from receiving the advantage of new Supreme Court decisions in their federal habeas corpus cases was a heatedly disputed 5-to-4 decision in 1989. It acted as a brake on the spread of the occasional liberal Supreme Court decision. Now that liberal initiatives are more likely to come from state criminal justice systems than from the court, the alignment of justices may be different.