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Habeas Appeals and Alternate Grounds

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Today the U.S. Supreme Court decided Jennings v. Stephens, No. 13-7211, regarding the issues a habeas petitioner can raise on appeal when the district court accepts some of his claims but rejects others and the state appeals.

Congress long ago placed a limitation on appeals by habeas petitioners, recognizing that the vast majority of petitions are meritless.  In 1996, Congress bolstered the filter for appeals by adding a requirement that a certificate of appealability specify the issues will potential merit and limiting the appellate court's jurisdiction to the identified issues.

How does this requirement apply to a case where the petitioner actually wins on one of his issues, and the state is the party appealing the decision?  For the most part, it doesn't, the Court held 6-3.  The court applied the standard rule for appeals in other kinds of cases, that the party prevailing in the trial court can raise the issues rejected by that court as long as he does not seek different or greater relief than he obtained in that court.

I do not think this result is consistent with the purpose of the issue-specification requirement, although it is not contrary to any language in the statute.  I very much doubt that anyone in Congress even thought about this particular wrinkle as the legislation was moving through.  It will present a practical problem for the courts of appeals in cases where petitioners file hundreds of claims, most of them frivolous, as is increasingly common in capital cases.

This is a loss, but not a big one in overall scheme of things.

The real goal of CJLF's brief in this case was to get the Supreme Court to finally define what is a "claim" for the purpose of habeas corpus.  That question was squarely presented six terms ago in Bell v. Kelly (CJLF brief here), but the Court dumped the case.  The manner in which the Court resolved the appeal issue in Jennings made it unnecessary to decide that question today.  We will keep on keeping on.

1 Comment

I agree that this was a relatively minor loss. It seems to me to be the application in an unusual context of the general rule that the party below may, on appeal, defend a judgment in its favor on any grounds the record will support, whether or not those grounds were enlisted by the lower court to support the ruling in the appellee's favor.

The problem, as Kent suggests, is that the result, while theoretically not troublesome, is likely to gum up the works in a capital review system that is already gummed to the hilt.

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