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AEDPA, Parole, and the Constitution

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The Ninth Circuit issued this decision today in the case of Sass v. Cal. Bd. of Prison Terms, which on its face is a not-too-unusual parole case. The BPT made a questionable determination that an inmate convicted of second degree murder in a drunk-driving death 12 years earlier was unsuitable for parole. Between the state courts reviewing the parole decision only for support by "some evidence" and the federal courts reviewing the state court decision only for unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent, the majority concludes (correctly in my opinion) that the federal court cannot grant relief. Judge Reinhardt fulminates, as expected.

What is interesting here is that the dissent does not question the applicability or constitutionality of the AEDPA deference standard, 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254(d). Judge Reinhardt recognizes it as controlling and purports to apply it. Yet in the very similar case of Irons v. Carey (CJLF brief here) Judges Reinhardt and Noonan sua sponte called for briefing on whether AEDPA is constitutional. After taking briefing on that issue, the Irons panel issued this order on October 27: "This case is referred to the Settlement Unit to explore a possible solution through mediation."

What do we make of this? Why call for briefing on a constitutional question that would be momentous if there were anything to it, then try to bury the case quietly, then matter-of-factly apply the questioned statute in a similar case without expressing any doubt as to its constitutionality? Perhaps the learned judge has realized that the briefing order in Irons was a huge mistake.

5 Comments

What's up with the settlement conference? It seems a little goofy for the state to have to try to "settle" a case where the question is whether the state gets to keep a guy in jail. What's the state supposed to do, tell the guy, ok, you drop your habeas appeal and we'll let you out in 4 years?

Understatement has not generally been a characteristic of federalist's comments here, but "a little goofy" shows there is a first time for everything.

It's hard not to be a tad circumspect when one is mystified. I guess when you have a crappy panel and you're the state, you might take the settlement--I guess when settlement negotiations are pending, the miscreant remains behind bars . . . .

Irons does indeed remain behind bars. It is the whole idea of settling a habeas case as if it were a mere civil dispute that is downright bizarre. A judgment of a state court sentences this person to prison for life unless and until the Board of Prison Terms decides he is suitable for parole. Absent an overriding requirement of federal law, it is illegal to let him out before then. A party to litigation cannot settle a case by agreeing to do something he has no authority to do.

Do any other circuits do this settlement thing in habeas cases? And do settlements actually happen where there's a horsetrade?

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