Hypothetical scenario:

  • 1950: government uses method A to convict John Doe of crime B, SCOTUS upholds conviction
  • 1990: government uses method A to convict Jake Smith of crime B
  • 2000: government uses method A to convict Jane Roe of crime B, SCOTUS overturns decision from 1950, vacates Roe's conviction

What would now happen to Smith's conviction, if anything?


1 Answer 1


The standard is this, from Teague v. Lane:

If a case announces a “new rule,” an opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, the new rule will apply to all cases pending on direct review; but in most cases it will not apply to cases already final.

There are two exceptions:

First, a “new rule” will apply retroactively if it is “substantive,” meaning eliminating certain crimes (all sodomy cases, say, after Lawrence v. Texas) or protecting certain classes of people from certain punishments—as in the Court’s recent decisions that juvenile offenders and the intellectually disabled cannot be sentenced to death. The issue in Montgomery is whether the new rule against “true life” sentences for juvenile is that kind of “substantive” rule. The Miller Court said that states could no longer subject juvenile defendants to automatic sentences of life without parole; it didn’t say that a court could not sentence any juveniles to that penalty. Is that a “substantive” exclusion of juveniles—or a requirement of individualized sentencing that makes a mere “procedural” change to the law?

The second exception to Teague is for a “watershed rule of criminal procedure,” meaning one that the Court finds to be an “absolute prerequisite” to a fair and accurate trial. This is a terrific exception except that, well, there seemingly aren’t any “watershed cases.”

  • I don't suppose you have a citation for this?
    – D M
    Mar 7, 2018 at 15:38
  • Changed the answer. Sorry. Had answered it with what I think should be true rather than how it currently is.
    – A.fm.
    Mar 7, 2018 at 15:49
  • 1
    Heh, good. I was just about to write my own answer citing Teague; now I don't have to.
    – D M
    Mar 7, 2018 at 15:50
  • In a previous job, we advocated in a state legislature so relentlessly for retroactivity to be applied to the state law changes that were required in the aftermath of the juvenile without parole issue that I forgot we, sadly, had not prevailed in that fight!
    – A.fm.
    Mar 7, 2018 at 15:52
  • Thanks for commenting and making me double check, by the way!
    – A.fm.
    Mar 7, 2018 at 15:53

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