Criminal Law and Procedure Decisions: Rogers v. Tennessee</titl <link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="RSS Feed for FindLaw Legal News Top Headlines" href="" /> <link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="RSS Feed for FindLaw Writ Legal Commentary" href="" /> <body itemscope itemtype=""> <!-- SiteCatalyst code version: H.20.3. Copyright 1997-2009 Omniture, Inc. 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Tennessee</ul><p align="center"><b>Due Process – Retroactive Judicial Construction of Common Law Crime</b></p><p><b>Case: <a href="">Rogers v. Tennessee</a></b></p><p><b>Issue</b>: Whether the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision to abolish the common law “year and a day rule” (which provided that no defendant could be convicted of murder unless the victim died by the defendant’s act within a year and a day of defendant’s act) and its simultaneous application of that decision to an appellant, in order to uphold his conviction, violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.</p><p><b>Facts</b>: Petitioner Wilbert K. Rogers stabbed James Bowdery in the heart with a butcher knife in 1994. Bowdery died fifteen months later, after surgery and a lapse into a coma, because of Rogers’ assault. Rogers was convicted of second degree murder. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Rogers’ contention that his conviction was invalid under the common law year and a day rule. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that the rule had been abolished by the Tennessee Criminal Sentencing Reform Act of 1989 (“the 1989 Act”), which eliminates all common law defenses in Tennessee criminal cases. The Supreme Court of Tennessee affirmed on different grounds. It held that the year and a day rule had <U>not</U> been abolished by the 1989 Act, but was no longer justified. The Tennessee Supreme Court proceeded to abolish the rule on its own, and <U>therefore</U> uphold Rogers’ conviction.</p><p>The Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed with Rogers’ claim that applying its decision to his case would run afoul of the <I>Ex Post Facto </I>Clause of the United States Constitution. Citing <a href="">Bouie v. City of Columbia</a>, 378 U.S. 347 (1964), the Tennessee Supreme Court held that retroactive application of its decision was neither <U>unexpected </U> or <U>indefensible</U> with reference to prior law.</p><p><b>Holding</b>: “[J]udicial alteration of a common law doctrine of criminal law violates the principle of fair warning, and hence must not be given retroactive effect, <U>only</U> where it is <U>unexpected</U> and <U>indefensible</U> by reference to the law which had been expressed prior to the conduct in issue.” Under this test, Rogers' conviction would stand.</p><p><b>Reasoning</b>: Justice O’Connor, writing for the majority, rejected Rogers’ assertion that <U>Bouie</U> prohibited <U>judicial</U> retroactive application of a law in any situation where <U>legislative</U> retroactive application would violate the <I>Ex Post Facto </I>Clause. Though there was language in <U>Bouie</U> supporting such an argument, such language was merely dicta. The <I>Ex Post Facto</I> Clause applies on its face to the legislature alone. </p><p>The real key to <U>Bouie</U> rested in its emphasis on the Due Process Clause concept of fair notice to criminal defendants. Fair notice can be violated by vague statuary language or unanticipated judicial constructions of pre-existing law. <U>Bouie</U> itself involved a novel and wholly unanticipated construction of a criminal statute. Justice O’Connor argued that a blanket rule prohibiting retroactive judicial alteration of criminal laws would be particularly pernicious in the common law context, where judges need flexibility to facilitate evolution of the common law. To O’Connor, the Tennessee Supreme Court’s abolition of the year and a day rule was neither unexpected nor indefensible. The rule had a weak foothold in Tennessee criminal jurisprudence, having been cited only three times in the past one hundred years, had been overruled in many other jurisdictions, and no longer had a rationale for existence in the wake of modern medical developments. </p><p><b>Other Opinions</b>: Justice Scalia, joined by Justices Stevens and Thomas, and in part by Justice Kennedy, dissented. To Scalia the matter was simple; the Tennessee Supreme Court had approved a man’s murder conviction on the basis of conduct that did not constitute murder when committed. This violated one of the oldest maxims, <I>nulla poena sine lege</I>, in the history of human thought. Scalia had no doubt that the Framers would have considered this a due process violation. The only reason the <I>Ex Post Facto</I> Clause did not explicitly reach judicial decisionmaking was the absence of the concept, at the time of the framing, of judicial <U>lawmaking</U>, i.e., judges <U>changing</U> rather than <u>finding</u> the law. </p><p>Moreover, the Court had mischaracterized <U>Bouie</U>. The key rationale of <U>Bouie</U> was that retroactive application of judicial alteration of the law was just as invalid as retroactive legislative alteration. Fair notice in <U>Bouie</U> did <U>not</U> relate to literal notice that the law might be changed, but rather to the notice provided by the old law as to what behavior was criminal. Indefensibility of a law referred to its indefensibility in relation to the prior law. Under all these tests, Tennessee’s retroactive application could not pass muster. That the year and a day rule had a weak foothold in Tennessee was irrelevant. The Tennessee Supreme Court held that the rule was in force when Rogers knifed Bowdery and the Court could not disturb that finding. The weakening of the rule in other jurisdictions (and the alleged notice this gave to Rogers) was equally irrelevant. This would have no effect on an any analysis of legislative retroactivity and should have no effect here. </p><p><b>Comment</b>: Justice O'Connor's textualist argument proves too much. Under her theory, the First Amendment could not apply to the executive or judicial branches since it only refers on its face to Congress. The <i>Ex Post Facto</i> Clause was directed to Congress because Congress was unequivocally the only federal lawmaking body. It is preposterous to assume that the Framers ever contemplated a judicial end-run around this prohibition. Like much of her work, Justice O’Connor’s opinion will have the effect of creating more litigation. Aside from his cogent analysis, Justice Scalia’s approach has the advantage of establishing a bright line rule against retroactive judicial alteration of the criminal law. 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