Gilmore v. Taylor
Decided on June 7, 1993; 508 US 333


A. Issues Discussed:

Criminal Justice (procedure), habeas corpus, 14th Amendment  

B. Legal Questions Presented:

Should a federal prisoner have access to the federal courts to attack a criminal judgment collaterally? Can the federal government continue to imprison a man after it has been established that the statute under which he was convicted and sentenced does not reach the behavior in which he engaged?

A. Background:

Respondent, Kevin Taylor, was convicted of murder by an Illinois jury and sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment. After unsuccessfully challenging his conviction in state courts, respondent sought federal habeas corpus relief, attacking his conviction on the ground that the jury instructions given at his trial violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.

The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit granted the relief and held that Illinois' pattern for jury instructions on murder and voluntary manslaughter were unconstitutional because they allowed a jury to return a murder verdict without considering whether the defendant possessed a mental state that would support a voluntary-manslaughter verdict instead.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to the Seventh Circuit court.
B. Counsel of Record:


Opposing Side

Lawrence C. Marshall, by appointment of the Court, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Roy T. Englert, Jr., Robert Agostinelli, and Timothy P. O’Neill.

Mark E. Wilson, Assistant Attorney General of Illinois, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Roland W. Burris, Attorney General, Rosalyn B. Kaplan, Solicitor General, and Terence M. Madsen, Marcia L. Friedl, and Steven J. Zick, Assistant Attorneys General.

C. The Arguments:

Opposing Side
“[R]espondent argues that the right to present a defense includes the right to have the jury consider it, and that confusing instructions on state law which prevent a jury from considering an affirmative defense therefore violate due process.” -US Supreme Court opinion Unavailable


Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Larry W. Yackle, Steven R. Shapiro, Leslie A. Harris, John A. Powell, and Harvey Grossman; and for Nicholas deB. Katzenbach et al. by George N. Leighton and George H. Kendall. Kent S. Scheidegger and Charles L. Hobson filed a brief for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation as amicus curiae urging reversal.

"Subject to two narrow exceptions, a case that is decided after a defendant’s conviction and sentence become final may not provide the basis for federal habeas relief if it announces a ‘new rule'... [A] decision announces a new rule 'if the result was not dictated by precedent existing at the time the defendant’s conviction became final.'

We begin our analysis with the actual flaw found by the Falconer court in the challenged jury instructions. It was not that they somehow lessened the State’s burden of proof below that constitutionally required by cases such as In re Winship, 397 U. S. 358 (1970); nor was it that the instructions affirmatively misstated applicable state law... The flaw identified by the Falconer court was that when the jury instructions were read consecutively, with the elements of murder set forth before the elements of voluntary manslaughter, a juror could conclude that the defendant was guilty of murder after applying the elements of that offense without continuing on to decide whether the elements of voluntary manslaughter were also made out, so as to justify returning a verdict on that lesser offense instead... In concluding that this defect violated due process, the Falconer court relied on Cupp v. Naughten... We think Cupp is an unlikely progenitor of the rule announced in Falconer, a view now shared by the Seventh Circuit.”

[R]espondent argues that the right to present a defense includes the right to have the jury consider it, and that confusing instructions on state law which prevent a jury from considering an affirmative defense therefore violate due process. But such an expansive reading of our cases would make a nullity of the rule reaffirmed in Estelle v. McGuire, supra, that instructional errors of state law generally may not form the basis for federal habeas relief. And the level of generality at which respondent invokes this line of cases is far too great to provide any meaningful guidance for purposes of our Teague inquiry... For the foregoing reasons, we disagree with the Seventh Circuit and respondent that our precedent foreordained the result in Falconer, and therefore hold that the rule announced in Falconer is 'new' within the meaning of Teague...

Because the rule announced in Falconer is 'new' within the meaning of Teague and does not fall into one of Teague’s exceptions, it cannot provide the basis for federal habeas relief in respondent’s case. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is therefore reversed."

Justice Vote: 2 Pro vs. 7 Con

  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined concurring opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined minority opinion)

The ACLU filed a brief as amicus curiae urging affirmance; the Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in a 7-2 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.