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USCA9 Overturns Pre-AEDPA Capital Case

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In 1996, Congress was fed up with federal courts -- particularly the Ninth Circuit -- overturning state decisions in capital cases based on dubious legal reasoning.  The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) reduced the rate at which capital judgments were overturned, but it seemed to have the least effect in the state where it was most needed -- California.  The Ninth seems to go especially far out of its way to evade AEDPA in California capital cases.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe it is because the most murderer-friendly judges in the circuit tend to live in California and feel particularly disturbed when justice is carried out here.

The Supreme Court has been reversing the Ninth piecemeal on this for years, but last year it cracked down hard on two of the most common methods of AEDPA evasion.  In Walker v. Martin, it disapproved the Ninth's practice of declaring nearly all of California's procedural default rules "inadequate" so that it could overturn sentences on the basis of claims not properly presented in state court.  In Cullen v. Pinholster, it disapproved the practice of taking additional evidence never presented to the state court to decide if the state court's decision is "reasonable."

The Ninth has not flipped a California death sentence under AEDPA since.

Today, though, the Ninth overturned a very old case not subject to AEDPA, illustrating why Congress was right to pass that law and the Supreme Court was right to crack down on evasions of it.  In Phillips v. Ornoski, Judges Reinhardt and B. Fletcher stretch to overturn a death sentence in a fraud-robbery-murder scheme from 1977.  Judge Kleinfeld notes in dissent that the majority's conclusion is contrary to that of every other court that has considered this case:  the state trial court, the California Supreme Court, and the federal district court.

Not the present-day California Supreme Court, take note.  The claim at issue here was rejected in 1985 by the Rose Bird California Supreme Court.  See People v. Phillips, 41 Cal.3d 29, 48-49.  There was no dissent on this point.  That's right, even Rosie herself didn't buy the claim that Reinhardt and Fletcher accept today.

Will the U.S. Supreme Court review this decision?  That would be tough.  The pre-AEDPA cases are as rare as condors now, and the fact that they are few and vanishing is a pretty good argument against certiorari.

3 Comments

"Will the U.S. Supreme Court review this decision? That would be tough. The pre-AEDPA cases are as rare as condors now, and the fact that they are few and vanishing is a pretty good argument against certiorari."

Other than the fact that two federal judges are jerking around a sovereign state . . . .

After this stunt, and many others, "Judge" Stephen Reinhardt should never hear another case again. Not just criminal/habeas--not another case.

I wonder if the surviving victim is still alive. If so, "Judge" Reinhardt and "Judge" Fletcher have earned a special place in hell for their cruel lawlessness. "[M]urderer-friendly judges" is an apt descriptor.

That the Supreme Court has allowed this nonsense to go on (and I acknowledge it has taken some action) is a stain upon its reputation. The Court used to handle a lot more cases. Perhaps its workload needs to be increased.

:: "The Ninth seems to go especially far out of its way to evade AEDPA in California capital cases. I'm not sure why."

Slavish adherence to religious dogma. The religion is humanism.

In the face of legitimate justice, the typical reaction is rebellion: "We will not have this man to reign over us." (Lk)
~Adamakis


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