Butler v. McKellar, 494 U.S. 407 (1990)

When the Supreme Court decides a case in a way that alters the constitutional rights available to a criminal defendant, can prisoners who have already completed their appeals benefit from that case through a petition for a writ of habeas corpus? In Teague v. Lane (1989), the Court decided that ‘‘new rules’’ would not be available to habeas petitioners. In Butler v. McKellar (1990), the Court decided, five to four, that if the outcome of a case was ‘‘susceptible to debate among reasonable minds,’’ its rule would be deemed new.

Butler had been arrested for assault, about which he declined to speak to the police, invoking his Miranda rights. The police then began to ask him about an unrelated rape and murder. The settled law was Edwards v. Arizona (1981), prohibiting police from asking a suspect about a criminal charge once the suspect invoked Miranda. Arizona v. Roberson (1988), decided after Butler had completed his appeals, extended Edwards to questioning about all charges. If Roberson were not a new rule, the questioning of Butler was unconstitutional. Roberson suggested that it was dictated by Edwards, but Butler concluded otherwise; lower courts had reached conflicting results before Roberson was decided, demonstrating that reasonable minds disagreed. Thus, it was a new rule.

Butler’s definition of a new rule was extremely broad; many, if not most, of the cases that the Supreme Court hears involve conflicting decisions among lower courts and would create new rules. However, subsequent new rule cases appeared to cut back on Butler.

TUNG YIN

References and Further Reading

  • Yackle, Larry W. Reclaiming the Federal Courts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Arizona v. Roberson, 486 U.S. 675 (1988) 
  • Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981) 
  • Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989) 

See also Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981); Habeas Corpus: Modern History; Harlan, John Marshall II; Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966); Right to Counsel (VI)

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