Edwards v. Vannoy, 593 U.S. ___, ___ S. Ct. ___ (May. 17, 2021)

Confronting the question in a habeas case of whether the holding in Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. ___, ___ S. Ct. ___ (2020) that a state jury must be unanimous to convict a criminal defendant of a serious offenses applies retroactively under the framework of Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), the Court held that while Ramos announced a “new” procedural rule it was not a “watershed rule” that applies retroactively. The Court further held that the Teague exception for watershed rules is moribund as no new rules of criminal procedure can satisfy the “purported exception” for watershed rules.  Writing for the majority, Justice Kavanaugh first conducted the traditional analysis of retroactivity under Teague, finding that while Ramos announced a new procedural rule that was “momentous and consequential” it was not a “watershed” rule and therefore did not apply retroactively to cases on collateral review.  Characterizing the “purported exception” for watershed rules as an “empty promise,” the Court said that “[c]ontinuing to articulate a theoretical exception that never actually applies in practice offers false hope to defendants, distorts the law, misleads judges, and wastes the resources of defense counsel, prosecutors, and courts.”  The Court said it was time to say explicitly what had been apparent for years: “New procedural rules do not apply retroactively on federal collateral review.” 

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, concurred in full but wrote separately to explain that the case could have been resolved under the AEDPA because a Louisiana state court had considered Edwards’s argument that he was entitled to a unanimous jury verdict and had reasonably relied on federal law as it was prior to Ramos in rejecting that claim.  Thomas explained that in such circumstances the AEDPA directs that a writ of habeas corpus shall not be granted.

Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas, concurred by canvassing the history of the writ of habeas corpus, explaining developments in the law in the middle of the twentieth century leading to Teague, and expressing his agreement with the decision to explicitly state that the “watershed rule” exception was illusory.

Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented, stating her view that the holding of Ramos “fits to a tee Teague’s description of a watershed procedural rule” and criticizing the majority’s overturning of the watershed exception as following “none of the usual rules of stare decisis.”