Whether a murder defendant's right to a fair trial was violated when the judge permitted the victim's relatives to wear buttons in court with the victim's picture on them was a question in a case argued yesterday in the Supreme Court. The New York Times says it is not the question the justices will answer. The case turns on whether the federal appeals court in San Francisco had the authority to order a new trial.
The case is a potentially important test of the relationship between the federal and state courts, as redefined by a 10-year-old federal law that restricts the federal courts' ability to set aside state convictions through writs of habeas corpus. The real question is how one of the most important limitations in that law actually works. In the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Congress said federal judges could grant habeas corpus petitions only if the state court decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” The high court never has said a word about a murder victim's relatives wearing buttons. So did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit have the authority to extrapolate from the old Supreme Court precedents to the new situation?