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Woodall Bearing Fruit

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In the U.S. Supreme Court's last term, CJLF accomplished one of its long-standing objectives regarding Congress's landmark 1996 reform of federal habeas corpus.  On questions of law, including "mixed questions" of law and fact, a lower federal court can effectively overturn a decision of a state court only if the state court decision is either (1) contrary to U.S. Supreme Court precedent, or (2) an "unreasonable application" of U.S. Supreme Court precedent.  That second phrase is supposed to refer to application of existing rules to the particular facts of the case, not making up new rules by plowing new legal ground.  We got the Supreme Court to clarify that, and put the brakes on lower federal courts, last April in White v. Woodall, discussed in this post.

Friday we saw the effect of Woodall in keeping a Nevada murderer in prison where he belongs.  The opinion comes from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, not friendly territory for law enforcement, written by Judge A. Wallace Tashima, not one of our best friends.
The underlying question had to do with when a decision by a state court on a question of state law must be applied retroactively to overturn judgments in cases tried before the decision but still on appeal when it comes down.  The U.S. Supreme Court said in Griffith v. Kentucky in 1987 that its own decisions on constitutional requirements must be applied retroactively in these circumstances, but this case involved a tweak to a state jury instruction on the meaning of "willful, deliberate, and premeditated" in a first-degree murder case.

After tweaking the jury instruction for future cases, the Nevada Supreme Court said, correctly, that because this was not a constitutional issue the Griffith precedent was not binding on it.  The Ninth Circuit in 2013 engaged in some creative judicial alchemy to concoct a federal question here and said that Nevada Supreme had committed a federal constitutional error, requiring the convictions in question to be overruled on federal habeas corpus.

As noted in today's News Scan, the Reno Gazette-Journal has this story on the case.

Ryan Oshun Moore was 17 years old when Branson Clark, 20, was killed after delivering pizza at a Summit Ridge Drive apartment in west Reno.
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Moore, Charles Morris and two others planned to rob people in one apartment of money and drugs when Clark showed up and delivered pizza, according to court testimony. Morris got the idea to rob Clark and ended up shooting and killing him. A jury convicted Morris of first degree murder.
The Nevada Supreme Court rejected Moore's argument on appeal, based on its own precedent saying that the instruction-tweaking case was not retroactive.  (117 Nev. 659, 663, n. 16.)  A federal district court overturned the conviction on habeas corpus.  The Ninth Circuit initially affirmed that holding in an unpublished memorandum, based on its own mistaken precedent on retroactivity, Babb v. Lozowsky.  The Nevada Attorney General sought rehearing after Woodall.

Friday, the Ninth rendered its new opinion, getting it right.  "We hold that Babb's
application of ยง 2254(d)(1) is 'clearly irreconcilable' with Woodall, as applied to petitioners in Moore's position and is therefore no longer controlling in this case."

It's been a long, hard slog, but at last even some of the most recalcitrant judges are finally getting it.

1 Comment

Kent -- Congratulations.

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