Recently in Habeas Corpus Category

Evading Congress's Landmark Habeas Reform

| 3 Comments
Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit granted rehearing en banc in a case it decided last year and the Supreme Court turned down last June.  Judge Tallman, joined by Judges O'Scannlain, Callahan, Bea, and Ikuta, takes the unusual step of dissenting from a grant of rehearing en banc. 

If one is remembered for the rules one breaks, then our court must be unforgettable. By taking this capital habeas case en banc now--after certiorari has been denied by the Supreme Court and well after the deadline for en banc review by our court has passed--we violate the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and our own General Orders. We also ignore recent Supreme Court authority that has reversed us for doing the same thing in the past. No circuit is as routinely reversed for just this type of behavior. We ought to know better.
Aside from the specific procedural question in this case is a deeper question.  Congress passed a landmark law in 1996 for the specific purpose of a making capital punishment effective.  One of the reforms was to crack down on successive petitions -- the filing of a new federal habeas petition after the first one has been denied.  This was, initially, one of most effective reforms in the package.  It was upheld by the Supreme Court with remarkable swiftness, two months after enactment of the law.  See Felker v. Turpin, 518 U.S. 651 (1996).  (CJLF filed an amicus brief.  See footnote on p. 654.)

However, the effectiveness of the reform has been diluted in recent years by the use of various procedural devices to reopen the old petition instead of filing a new one.  The Supreme Court has not been tough enough in restricting this practice.  Habeas corpus is not just another civil case.  Congress spoke clearly when it said that once a case is finished it should be reopened only for certain very compelling circumstances (like, for instance, we got the wrong guy).  An arguably insufficient consideration of "mitigating" evidence that has nothing whatever to do with the crime, which is what Henry is about, is not a good enough reason to further delay already badly delayed justice.  Congress has decided that, and the courts need to respect that.

Jones v. Chappell Appeal

| No Comments
Last week I noted the appeal in Jones v. Chappell, the case holding that because of the delays in carrying out justice in the worst murder cases in California we must now forgo that justice altogether. The docket number in the Ninth Circuit is 14-56373.  The appellant's opening brief is due December 1.  The answer brief is due December 29.  The reply brief is due January 12.  These are all Mondays.

Some people have asked me about a stay.  There is nothing to stay.  There is no injunction affecting other cases.  There is no final judgment in this case.  This is just a ruling on one claim in one case.  To the extent the judge's order purports to vacate Jones's death sentence directly, it is void.  A federal district court judge has no authority to vacate a judgment in a state criminal case as such.  He can only issue a conditional release order, saying that the warden must release a person unless he is retried or resentenced, and the judge in this case has not done that yet.

BTW, Ninth Circuit case 14-56302 is the Soos/Justice appeal noted here, and that case will surely go away shortly.  Update: Today Mr. Soos and Dr. Justice filed their response to the Court of Appeals' order to explain what the heck they are doing appealing a case to which they are not parties.

Pretrial Habeas Corpus and Gov. Perry

| 1 Comment
Once upon a time, the use of habeas corpus in criminal cases was almost entirely pretrial.  A person jailed pending trial for alleged conduct that he contended was not a crime could get that issue reviewed via habeas corpus.  The most famous American case involved two men accused in the Aaron Burr conspiracy.  See Ex parte Bollman and Swartwout, 8 U.S. 75 (1807).  The writ could be used post-trial to attack the jurisdiction of a court of limited jurisdiction, such as a court-martial of a defendant who claimed to be a civilian, but collateral attack via habeas corpus on a conviction by a court of general jurisdiction was simply not available.  It was over 40 years after the formation of the federal courts before anyone tried, and the attempt was swiftly shot down in Ex parte Watkins, 28 U.S. 193 (1830).

Today the situation is very much the opposite.  We don't see a lot of pretrial habeas corpus these days, but Texas Governor Rick Perry is doing it old school.  Eugene Volokh has this post with a link to the application. Perry is in "custody," a jurisdictional requirement for habeas corpus, because he is out on bond.

Jones v. Chappell Appealed

| No Comments
The California Attorney General today filed a notice of appeal in the Jones v. Chappell case.

Earlier posts on this case:

The Lackey Claim, Again

Summing up the Jones Death Penalty Case

Why Jones v. Chappell is Wrong, Part 2

Why Jones v. Chappell is Wrong, Part 3 -- Teague v. Lane

Time to Appeal Jones v. Chappell, Ms. Harris

Does a California District Attorney Have Standing to Intervene in a Federal Habeas Corpus Case?

Further Strange Developments in Jones v. Chappell

The Attorney General said in a press release, "I am appealing the court's decision because it is not supported by the law, and it undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants. This flawed ruling requires appellate review."  Undermines important protections?  Well, certainly "not supported by the law," "flawed," and "requires appellate review" are correct.  With apologies to Meatloaf, three out of four ain't bad.

Actual Innocence and Habeas Corpus

| 1 Comment
Is a claim that a convicted prisoner is actually innocent of the crime, by itself without any claim that the trial was procedurally unfair, a ground for relief in habeas corpus?  That question remains unanswered.  Today in Jones v. Taylor, No. 13-36202, the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court's grant of relief to an Oregon prisoner convicted of intrafamily sexual abuse.  As sometimes happens in such cases, the witnesses (who are family of the defendant) recanted.  The opinion by Judge Tashima skips the question of whether a sufficient showing of actual innocence can be a ground for habeas relief and says that this showing doesn't make it.

This is a common outcome in such cases.  The Supreme Court seemed poised to decide the "actual innocence" question in Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993), but when it took a good, hard look at the evidence it saw that it fell "far short" of anything that might conceivably warrant overturning a conviction.  In the infamous Troy Davis case, the high court took the extraordinary step of sending an original habeas petition to a district court for fact-finding on innocence, where the district judge found that Davis's claim of innocence was "smoke and mirrors." 

Ryan v. Hurles Returns to SCOTUS

| No Comments
Arizona's attempt to reinstate the death sentence of murderer Richard Hurles is back in the U.S. Supreme Court.  The prior petition was "relisted" an astonishing 22 times before the Ninth Circuit withdrew its opinion and issued a new one, causing the state to withdraw its petition.  The case was noted many times on this blog, including this post and this post, and it was a "regular" in John Elwood's "Relist Watch" at SCOTUSblog.

The new petition is number 14-191.

Woodall Bearing Fruit

| 1 Comment
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.
If I were Attorney General of California, Judge Carney's decision in Jones v. Chappell, noted here, here, here, here, and here would have been greeted the same day by a fiery denunciation and a Churchillesque pledge to fight it wherever, whenever, and for as long as it takes.  Instead, we have who we have, and we hear [sound of crickets chirping].

The Attorney General is the chief law enforcement officer of the State of California and has a constitutional duty to see that its laws are enforced.  (Cal. Const. Art. V § 13.)  Until we hear otherwise, we should assume that Ms. Harris will do her duty and do everything in her power to have this clearly erroneous obstruction of the law overturned.  Purely hypothetically, though, I have been musing about the possibilities.  So let's take a little stroll down the "what if" road.

In California, can the District Attorney intervene in a federal habeas corpus collateral attack on a felony conviction and appeal a grant of relief if the Attorney General fails to?
Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court announced one of the most important decisions* in the modern history of criminal procedure, Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 306 (1989).  Adopting a rule proposed by Justice Harlan 20 years earlier, the court decided that new rules of constitutional law would not be applied retroactively to cases that were already final on direct review at the time the rule was announced.  A corollary rule was that new rules could not be announced in habeas review of final convictions.

In his decision declaring California's death penalty unconstitutional, Judge Carney has this cursory discussion of the Teague issue:

The rule Mr. Jones seeks to have applied here--that a state may not arbitrarily inflict the death penalty--is not new. Rather, it is inherent in the most basic notions of due process and fair punishment embedded in the core of the Eighth Amendment. See Furman, 408 U.S. at 274-77 (Brennan, J., concurring) (describing the principle that "the State must not arbitrarily inflict a severe punishment" as "inherent in the [Cruel and Unusual Punishment] Clause" and tracing its application in Anglo-American jurisprudence); see also id. at 242 (Douglas, J., concurring) ("There is evidence that the provision of the English Bill of Rights of 1689, from which the language of the Eighth Amendment was taken, was concerned primarily with selective or irregular application of harsh penalties and that its aim was to forbid arbitrary and discriminatory penalties of a severe nature."). This rule is certainly one "so deeply embedded in the fabric of due process that everyone takes it for granted." Dyer v. Calderon, 151 F.3d 970, 984 (9th Cir. 1998) (en banc). It is therefore not a new rule for Teague purposes. See id. ("[A] rule needs to be announced for purposes of Teague only if it's new.").
Judge Carney is breathtakingly ignorant of the most elementary principles for applying the Teague rule.

The Lackey Claim, Again

| 8 Comments
It's been almost twenty years since Justice Stevens, alone, took seriously a claim that a death sentence could be rendered unconstitutional by the length of time taken by the many procedures to review it, all or most of them initiated by the defendant.  That was in Lackey v. Texas, 514 U.S. 1045 (1995).  The full court has turned the claim down every time.  Although denial of certiorari (meaning simply that the high court declines to hear the case) does not form a precedent binding on lower courts, the consistency of rejection of this claim has generally been understood as a signal that the issue was dead.

Prior posts on the high court's rejection of Lackey claims are here, here, here, here, and here.

Justice Thomas noted in Knight v. Florida, 528 U.S. 990 (1999):

I write only to point out that I am unaware of any support in the American constitutional tradition or in this Court's precedent for the proposition that a defendant can avail himself of the panoply of appellate and collateral procedures and then complain when his execution is delayed. Indeed, were there any such support in our own jurisprudence, it would be unnecessary for proponents of the claim to rely on the European Court of Human Rights, the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, the Supreme Court of India, or the Privy Council.
Now comes a federal district judge in California who accepts the claim based on the particularly extended delays in California.  The order is here.

Judge Carney's thesis, in a nutshell, is that the death penalty lacks a penological basis after such a long delay.  But the retribution interest, at least, is still there.  The defendant still deserves this punishment for the very worst murders, and society has a valid interest in carrying it out, no matter how long it takes.

The problems Judge Carney notes are violations of rights, though -- the rights of the victims' families.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3771(a)(7); Cal. Const., Art. I, § 28(b)(9).  The California Legislature has been derelict in its duty to pass the needed reforms, killing them in committee time after time.  The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and ultimately the Governor, have been derelict in their duty to carry out their responsibilities to execute judgments and implement a protocol that will allow them to do so.  The California Supreme Court has been derelict in its duty to resolve state habeas petitions in a reasonable time by referring them to the superior court where they belong.  The federal courts have been derelict in their duty to fully implement the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, evading it at every turn despite numerous reversals by the Supreme Court.

All of these people need to do their duty and fix the delays -- for the victims, not the perpetrators.

The facts of the particular case follow the break.

Oh, Never Mind

| 1 Comment
I spoke a bit too soon yesterday in saying the U.S. Supreme Court had wrapped up its term.  Today we have an odd little one-paragraph per curiam disposition in Willams v. Johnson, 13-9085, a sequel to last year's Johnson v. Williams, 11-465.

The underlying issue has to do with a trial judge's dismissal of a juror.  As with a great many issues in criminal procedure, there are state law requirements overlaid with federal constitutional case law.  The state appellate court, in its decision rejecting the claim, did not separately discuss the federal question.  In the Ninth Circuit, the notorious Judge Stephen Reinhardt engaged in his favorite pastime of evading the habeas corpus reforms enacted by Congress in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.  Declaring that the state court had ignored the federal claim and therefore not ruled on the merits, he found himself freed from the deference shackles imposed by Congress and proceeded to decide the claim de novo, a bit of legal Latin which, in this context, means "we don't give a damn what the state court decided."  The mercurial Chief Judge Alex Kozinski went along with this, as did a district judge sitting by designation.

SCOTUS was not amused and slapped down the Ninth in yet another unanimous AEDPA reversal last year.  However, the Supreme Court committed its own error in the process.  Along with saying that the Ninth should have applied the deference standard, for reasons well explained and quite correct, the opinion contains an otherwise unexplained line that "under that standard respondent is not entitled to habeas relief."  The Court also denied a petition for rehearing.

On remand, the Ninth thought it was bound by this statement.  Today, the Supreme Court said no, go ahead and decide the case under the deference standard.  No explanation; no apology.

The Court also issued a short orders list vacating and remanding some cases in light of recent decisions and granting certiorari in some civil cases.
AP reports:

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- O.J. Simpson's lawyers submitted a supersized appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court, seeking the former football star's release from prison and a new trial in his 2007 Las Vegas armed-robbery case.

The lawyers met a midnight Wednesday deadline to submit a request for the court to review Simpson's claim that 2008 trial in Las Vegas was tainted by his fame and notoriety following his 1995 acquittal in Los Angeles in the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend.
*                                      *                                  *
The appeal stems from arguments rejected last year by Clark County District Judge Linda Marie Bell that Simpson's trial attorney botched Simpson's trial and first appeal to the state Supreme Court, the only appeals court in Nevada.
The case is Simpson v. State, No. 64529.  It is an appeal from the District Court's denial of postconviction relief.  It goes to the Nevada Supreme Court because Nevada has no intermediate appellate court.  The direct appeal was No. 53080, affirmed in 2010.
After the failed execution two weeks ago in Oklahoma, the usual voices called for a halt in executions in other states that have had no such problems.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected that claim yesterday in the case of Texas murderer Robert James Campbell.  The opinion is here.

Today the same court granted a stay of execution to allow Campbell to litigate his retardation claim.  Mark Berman has this story for the WaPo.

Campbell is able to litigate his Atkins claim this late because of nondisclosure by the state prison authorities of tests indicating retardation.  The court notes that its action is "[b]ecause of the unique circumstances of this case," so it is not an indication for other cases.

In its 1996 reform of habeas corpus law, Congress placed severe restrictions on the ability of inmates to file a second federal habeas petition after one has been rejected.  This is one of the very few cases found to meet the stringent criteria.

AP has some more info on the planned, but now cancelled, execution here.

Reasonable Applications

| 2 Comments
If a criminal defendant argues a debatable question in his appeal in the state courts, those courts rule against him, and the U.S. Supreme Court declines to take up the case (as it does 99% of the time), should the defendant get another bite and the apple in the lower federal courts?  Should a single federal district judge or a three-judge panel of the federal court of appeals be able to effectively overturn the considered judgment of the state supreme court?

For a long time, that was the way it worked.  Perhaps there was a policy justification for it at the time, but beginning in the mid-1970s, the Supreme Court and Congress have been pushing the law in the other direction.  Most debatable constitutional questions in criminal cases today are far removed from the real Constitution and rarely have much to do with our confidence we have the right guy.  On top of that, the asymmetric nature of habeas corpus make it a "heads I win, tails we take it over" form of review tilting in the defendant's favor, a tilt that is unnecessary and unjust when we are not talking about questions of actual innocence.

A big leap forward was made in 1996, when Congress enacted that a claim decided on the merits by the state court could not be the basis for a federal writ of habeas corpus unless the state decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" or was "based on an unreasonable determination of the facts."

Defendant-leaning federal judges hate this law and have been evading it ever since.  The Supreme Court smacks them down, sometimes harshly, but as one of the worst is rumored to have said, "they can't reverse them all."

Another smackdown came today.  In addition to strong words, though, the Supreme Court closed a loophole, making an important advance for justice.

Sometimes, You Forget How Bad They Can Be

| 1 Comment
But Ed Whelan of NRO's  Bench Memos reminds us:


2005--A split Ninth Circuit panel, in an opinion by notorious activist judge Stephen Reinhardt, rules in a habeas case (Musladin v. Lamarque) that under clearly established Supreme Court law a defendant on trial for murder was deprived of his right to a fair trial by an impartial jury when the trial judge permitted family members of the victim (or, as Reinhardt insists on referring to him in quotes, the "victim") to wear buttons bearing the deceased's photograph. (The panel will later substitute in a slightly different version of its opinion.)

In 2006, a mere two months after oral argument, the Supreme Court (in Carey v. Musladin) will unanimously reverse the Ninth Circuit.


How far some judges will go to re-invent the Constitution as a cudgel of callousness toward the families of murder victims is mind-bending. 

Monthly Archives