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USCA9 Reversed for "Attempt to Get Around" SCOTUS Precedents

Without dissent, the United States Supreme Court has once again summarily reversed the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  "Summarily" means the error was so obvious that the high court could reverse on the state's petition alone, without setting the case for full briefing and argument.

The rule in the federal courts and every state is that a criminal defendant who can make a claim on his initial appeal on the trial record must do so or lose it.  He can't wait for a subsequent "collateral" attack (habeas corpus or a substitute for it) to make such a claim.  The technical term for rules such as this is "procedural default," but it may be more easily understood as the "speak now or forever hold your peace rule."  There are generally exceptions to mitigate the harshness of these rules.  For example, a strong showing of actual innocence of the crime is an exception in both federal and California courts.

When a state prisoner has completed his state appeals and seeks relief in federal courts, Supreme Court precedent has long required the federal court to respect the state's procedural default rules.  For many years, the Ninth Circuit has evaded this requirement for California prisoners by blithely declaring the state's rules "inadequate."  In 2011, the Supreme Court reversed one such evasion in Walker v. Martin, a unanimous opinion by Justice Ginsburg.  The language was broad enough to fully restore California's rules and we thought that battle was won.  Astonishingly, the Ninth Circuit brushed Martin aside, held that it only applied to the kind of rule specifically at issue in that case, and declared that it did not apply to California's much more common default-on-appeal rule described in the previous paragraph. 

I thought that was a shocking -- and intentional -- evasion of controlling Supreme Court precedent by a lower court that simply did not like the result.

Today we learned that the Supreme Court thinks so, too.
The thrust of the Ninth Circuit's adequacy holding is that if a state procedural default rule is sometimes not applied where it might be, the state's rule is inadequate.  That is, if a prisoner raises a claim on habeas corpus that he might have raised earlier on direct appeal, and sometimes the state court goes ahead and considers the claim on the merits even though it might have dismissed it as defaulted, the state court has somehow done something that lets federal courts go ahead and consider such claims on the merits in all cases, effectively wiping out the procedural default rule.

This is absurd, and the Supreme Court pretty much said so in Walker v. Martin.  There are good reason for courts to have procedural default rules.  Resources are limited, and every dollar a court spends considering one prisoner's repeated attacks on his conviction is a dollar that cannot be spent considering some other claim of injustice.  There are also good reasons to occasionally waive these rules.  Exceptions are created to avoid injustice, and sometimes a claim is so obviously meritless that denying it on the merits is easier and more efficient than going through the possible exceptions.

None of this logic is unique to the "discretionary" rule at issue in Martin.  It applied just as much to "mandatory" type rules such as those in Johnson v. Lee.  Purporting to distinguish Martin on such a thin pretext appeared to be purposeful evasion.  Today's Supreme Court opinion seems to agree.  "The Ninth Circuit's attempt to get around Martin and Kindler fails."

"Attempt to get around" implies that the Ninth was determined to evade a Supreme Court precedent its judges simply did not like.  That is not a court of appeals judge's job.  They are supposed to apply Supreme Court precedents faithfully, not try to pick them apart like an advocate for one side would do.

This is a thoroughly deserved spanking.  I had hoped for better from Judge Jacqueline Nguyen when she was appointed.  I hope she takes this chastisement to heart and starts applying the Supreme Court's habeas corpus precedents faithfully and not grudgingly.

Here are the facts of the case from CJLF's brief:

Paul Carasi is the co-defendant of habeas petitioner Donna Kay Lee. On Mother's Day 1995, Doris Carasi (Paul Carasi's mother) and Sonia Salinas (mother of Paul Carasi's child) were stabbed to death in the parking garage of Universal Studios CityWalk in Los Angeles. See App. to Pet. for Cert. 138a, 141a-142a (opinion on direct appeal). Paul Carasi and Lee, who was living with Carasi at the time, were tried together for this crime. Carasi was sentenced to death, and Lee was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Id., at 150a.
Although this is a noncapital case (as to Lee), this decision has important implications for capital cases.  California's system of review of capital cases takes too long and costs too much, the one thing both sides agree on.  What is not widely understood (especially not by the federal judge who wrote the since-reversed opinion that the delay made it unconstitutional) is that the failure of the lower federal courts to respect the limits on their authority is responsible for a large part of the delay and expense.  By evading the procedural default rule, the federal courts have required lawyers to brief and courts to decide a great many issues that should have been dismissed at the threshold.  Because almost all claims have nothing whatever to do with whether the defendant actually committed the crime, this is wasteful, and it is unnecessary to achieving a just result in the case.

This practice should have stopped cold after Martin.  Perhaps the Ninth will see the light and stop it now.

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