Understanding Teague v. Lane


In Teague v. Lane, the United States Supreme Court held that new rules of criminal procedure do not apply retroactively to cases which had become final on direct review at the time the new rule was decided. As the retroactivity of any prior decision was not a question presented for review in Teague, nor was it briefed nor argued by any party, it is apparent that at least a majority of the Court felt that the retroactivity of new rules of criminal procedure was an issue of prime importance. That aspect of Teague should not have come as a surprise to anyone who had followed the Court’s retroactivity decisions. A majority of the Court had recently expressed, in several decisions, dissatisfaction with the then-existing modes of determining retroactivity. In fact, the Court had consistently tinkered with retroactivity analysis. Thus, against this backdrop, Teague is best seen as an attempt by the Court to greatly modify existing retroactivity analysis. This modification was needed, according to several previously dissatisfied Justices, not only to simplify retroactivity analysis, but also to give greater protection to the states’ interest in the finality of criminal convictions.

In this Article, we will maintain that the rule announced in Teague does not measurably contribute to either of the proposed goals. First, we will assert, with the benefit of the historical tapestry of the Court’s retroactivity decisions, that Teague did not, at least in a formal context, significantly change retroactivity analysis. Second, we will establish that to the extent Teague did change the law relevant to the retroactivity of new rules of criminal procedure, it departed from the doctrinal purposes underlying retroactivity and made the law hopelessly complex and unworkable. Thus, due to the curious nature of the Teague holding, the Supreme Court has essentially guaranteed that it will have to decide the retroactivity of virtually every rule it has ever decided and will decide in the future.

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