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Kernan v. Cuero

Case Name
Kernan v. Cuero
583 U.S. 1
Unanimous Decision
Authoring Judge
Per Curium
Judge(s) - Majority
John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch
U.S. Supreme Court
On Review From
9th Circuit
Decision Year


Defendant pled guilty to two felonies: (1) causing bodily injury while driving under the influence of a drug, and (2) unlawful possession of a firearm. Under that guilty plea, defendant could have been sentenced to a maximum of 14 years and 4 months in prison, a $10,000 fine, and 4 years probation. However, in his form entering the guilty plea, defendant admitted he had previously served time for residential burglary and assault with a deadly weapon. These two prior offenses qualified as predicate offenses under California’s “three strike” law. Upon discovery of this information, the State asked the Court for permission to amend the criminal complaint. The trial court granted the motion and simultaneously allowed Defendant to withdraw his plea to eliminate any prejudice against him. California amended the complaint, charging Defendant with one felony (causing bodily injury while driving under the influence of a drug) and alleging two prior strikes. Defendant entered a new guilty plea and was sentenced to a stipulated term of 25 years to life in prison. Defendant filed a petition for federal habeas relief after exhausting state remedies, alleging breach of the plea agreement by the State’s amendment. The District Court for the Southern District of California affirmed, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The Ninth Circuit held that Defendant was entitled to specific performance of his original plea agreement and the trial court “acted contrary to clearly established Supreme Court law” in refusing to enforce the terms of the original agreement. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that there was no holding of the Court that required specific performance of an original plea agreement as a remedy for broken prosecutorial promise. Because no Supreme Court decision entitled Defendant to the relief he sought, the decision of the state court could not be held to be contrary to “clearly established Supreme Court law”.

Key Quote

“Where, as here, none of our prior decisions clearly entitles Cuero to the relief he seeks, the ‘state court’s decision could not be “contrary to” any holding from this Court.’ Finally, as we have repeatedly pointed out, ‘circuit precedent does not constitute “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.”‘ Nor, of course, do state-court decisions, treatises, or law review articles. For all these reasons, we conclude that the Ninth Circuit erred when it held that ‘federal law’ as interpreted by this Court ‘clearly’ establishes that specific performance is constitutionally required here.” p.8-9