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Federal Review of State DNA Testing Decision

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Kevin Cooper is on death row in California, convicted of four murders and one attempted murder.  Three of the victims, including the survivor, were children.  Cooper has sought and obtained post-conviction DNA testing of evidence in the case, which further confirmed his guilt. See prior posts here and here.  He continues to demand further testing.

California has a statute on DNA testing, Penal Code § 1405.  The state court found Cooper did not qualify, finding among other things that the tests Cooper wants would not be any better than the ones already done.  Instead of seeking review up the appellate chain, Cooper ran over to federal court and filed a civil rights suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983.  Can you use a federal civil suit as a de facto appeal from a state court decision in this manner?  No, the Ninth Circuit decided yesterday in Cooper v. Ramos, No. 11-57144.

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine instructs that federal district courts are without jurisdiction to hear direct appeals from the judgments of state courts. Congress, in 28 U.S.C. § 1257, vests the United States Supreme Court, not the lower federal courts, with appellate jurisdiction over state court judgments. Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 463 (2006) (per curiam). Accordingly, "[r]eview of such judgments may be had only in [the Supreme] Court." District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 482 (1983). The doctrine bars a district court from exercising jurisdiction not only over an action explicitly styled as a direct appeal, but also over the "de facto equivalent" of such an appeal. Noel v. Hall, 341 F.3d 1148, 1155 (9th Cir. 2003).

The opinion is by Judge McKeown, with Judges Gould and Tallman concurring.

Update:  Richard DeAtley has this article in the San Bernardino Press-Enterprise.

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Why doesn't res judicata bar these sorts of things?

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