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Posts Tagged ‘habeas corpus’

A recent post by Michael Dorf about Virginia’s cert petition in Moose v. MacDonald reminded me of one thing that I like about the law. It can channel moral and political disagreement in various ways so that people who might disagree as to non-legal matters can agree about legal matters. Dorf concludes, contrary to some of AG Ken Cuccinelli’s most vocal critics, that “Cuccinelli appears to have a pretty good legal argument that the Fourth Circuit decided the case erroneously.” As I have previously argued (here, here, here, and here), Virginia’s argument is “pretty good” and maybe even better than that. This does not mean that the Supreme Court will grant cert, of course, but this is one of those unusual cases where summary reversal might get serious consideration.

Dorf’s conclusion about the strength of Virginia’s petition depends on the deferential standard of review on federal habeas supplied by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). That provision prohibits a federal court from granting an application for a writ of habeas corpus to one in custody pursuant to state proceedings unless the State adjudication “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” As long as the Virginia state court’s view was not unreasonable, the Fourth Circuit should not have granted relief.

Although disagreeing with most critics on the merits, Dorf apparently agrees that the course of proceedings nevertheless reveals “Cuccinell’s hypocrisy” and his “audacity.” This assessment relies on Cuccinelli’s opposition to a proposed “Lawrence fix” bill that Cuccinelli voted against as a legislator. Here’s the key paragraph of Dorf’s post on this point:

Much of the media coverage of the case has understandably focused on Cuccinelli’s hypocrisy.  The Virginia legislature tried to replace the blanket sodomy prohibition–which applies to everyone regardless of their age–with a narrower law that would focus simply on sex with minors, but Cuccinelli played a role in squashing that effort.  Now he has the audacity to say that he needs to use the broader law as his only available means to target sodomy with minors. Dahlia Lithwick nicely captures what is so outrageous about this move when she writes: “You can’t really stagger around swinging a huge, unwieldy legal mallet and claiming it’s the only tool you have against pedophilia. Not when you opted to turn down the offer of a scalpel.”

This assessment misdescribes the nature of the proposed “Lawrence fix”  in a way that undercuts the analysis. The bill did three things: (1) it separated the bestiality and sodomy prohibitions into separately numbered subsections; (2) it provided that the sodomy prohibition “shall not apply where all persons are consenting adults who are not in a public place and who are not aiding, abetting, procuring, engaging in or performing any act in furtherance of prostitution”; and (3) it changed the classification of the sodomy offense from a felony to a misdemeanor (which may have been the reason that some legislators opposed it). Note that nothing in these changes had to do with age; the bill did not “focus simply on sex with minors,” but instead codified the Virginia legislature’s understanding of Lawrence.

And here is where things get (legally) interesting: If the Virginia legislature’s understanding of Lawrence was correct, then the Fourth Circuit‘s analysis was wrong. Under the Virginia legislature’s understanding of Lawrence, the conduct underlying the petitioner’s solicitation offense (solicitation of oral sex from a minor) was not constitutionally protected. The narrowing that would have been accomplished as a matter of state law under the proposed fix would not have excluded petitioner’s conduct from the sweep of the prohibition. Not only would sodomy involving minors have remained within the prohibition, so too would have sodomy in a public place, and sodomy related to prostitution. The proposed Lawrence fix relied on the very same reading of Lawrence defended by Virginia in Moose v. MacDonald. 

The Fourth Circuit determined that it could not adopt this reading because “a judicial reformation of the anti-sodomy provision to criminalize MacDonald’s conduct in this case, and to do so in harmony with Lawrence, requires a drastic action that runs afoul of the Supreme Court’s decision in Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, 546 U.S. 320 (2006).” And yet the Fourth Circuit would have had to do precisely nothing to Virginia’s law in order to deny habeas relief. As a matter of federal law, the prohibition against unconstitutional applications of the sodomy statute already existed because of Lawrence itself. Apart from the change in penalty, there would have been no difference in the state of the law as it existed at the time of petitioner’s September 2004 conduct of conviction if Virginia had enacted the proposed Lawrence fix earlier that year.

And here’s where it gets even more (legally) interesting. The change in penalty would have been significant for petitioner. If the proposed bill had passed, petitioner could not have been convicted of solicitation of a felony because oral sex with a 17-year-old, unrelated minor would have been changed to a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Maybe that would have been a good change in the law; maybe it would have been bad. But by including it in addition to the Lawrence fix, the bill’s sponsors probably lost some votes, perhaps including Cuccinelli’s. If so, then Cuccinelli’s stance is not only not hypocritical, but completely consistent. And it is the critics who are subject to the accusation instead. For the proposed bill would not have enabled Virginia to prosecute the petitioner’s conduct in the way that it did.

Okay, now suppose that Virginia had enacted a Lawrence fix identical to the one proposed but without the change in penalty. Perhaps Cuccinelli could have voted for it. There would have been no reason not to because it would not have worked any real change in the law. If petitioner had then raised a Lawrence-based claim on direct review, he would have had to argue for an extension of Lawrence. And on the supposition that this would have been unsuccessful, his claim for habeas relief would have been unsuccessful because the § 2254(d) standard of review precludes that kind of extension of the law.

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Writing at Slate, Dahlia Lithwick criticizes what she describes as Ken Cuccinelli’s “war on consensual sodomy in the commonwealth.”  I have criticized Cuccinelli before myself, but it is a mistake to view Cuccinelli’s actions here as an attempt to “employ the federal courts to advance a personal moral agenda.” Although Lithwick’s piece makes some good policy arguments about the advisability of revising Virginia law, I disagree with Lithwick’s criticism of the Attorney General of Virginia for seeking Supreme Court review of a federal habeas corpus decision that incorrectly held a state law partially facially unconstitutional notwithstanding the strictures of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

Before getting into some fairly dense discussion of things like facial challenges and severability that explains why Virginia’s position makes good legal sense, it is fitting at the outset (before I have lost both of my readers) to criticize Lithwick’s piece from the standpoint of legal journalism. It is, of course, fair to criticize a discretionary choice to seek discretionary review, and reasonable people may disagree about whether Virginia should have sought certiorari. But Lithwick’s characterization of the arguments advanced by Virginia in its petition for certiorari is inaccurate and misleading. Virginia is not asking the Supreme Court to “interpret [Virginia’s] terrifyingly broad sodomy law to apply only to sex involving 16- and 17-year-olds,” as Lithwick puts it. Rather, Virginia is asking the Supreme Court to hold that Lawrence v. Texas invalidated Virginia’s statute only insofar as the statute is applied to criminalize consensual, private, non-commercial, adult conduct of the sort at issue Lawrence. According to Virginia’s petition, that is the view of Lawrence adopted by virtually every other court in the country. And asking the Supreme Court to rein in the Fourth Circuit’s outlier reading hardly amounts to “begging out-of-touch, elitist, liberal federal courts to make ad hoc decisions about which private sex acts are ‘unnatural’.” I realize that there can be many legitimate ways of characterizing legal arguments. But in this piece, Lithwick trades precision for sensationalism. Moreover, the version of the piece that is up as I write contains seventeen links, but not one of these is to Virginia’s actual legal arguments. At a minimum, Slate should immediately include a link to Virginia’s petition so that its readers can judge for themselves. And Slate should probably also add a link to the Fourth Circuit’s opinion itself. (The closest the piece comes now is a link to a post at Constitutional Law Prof Blog. Happy for them to get the traffic, go read!, but there’s nothing like going straight to the source.)

Okay, now for the technical legal stuff of a sort that I find interesting but that has the proven capacity to bore my family (and probably almost anyone else stuck with me on long car trips) to tears. (more…)

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The Fourth Circuit today unanimously reversed the grant of habeas relief to a North Carolina capital defendant, Timothy Richardson, by Judge Boyle of the Eastern District of North Carolina. Judge Keenan wrote the opinion for the court in Richardson v. Branker, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Motz joined.

The decision, which relies heavily on the Supreme Court’s decision last Term in Harrington v. Richter, ___ U.S. ,___ 131 S. Ct. 770, 786-87 (2011), rests on the appellate court’s determination that the district court did not demonstrate adequate deference to the state court decision at issue. The opinion states that the “required deference to the MAR court’s adjudication of Richardson’s claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel was wholly lacking in the district court’s consideration of the habeas petition.”

Along with analysis of North Carolina law governing when it is necessary to submit to the jury the mitigating factor of the defendant’s age–the (f)(7) mitigation factor–the opinion also discusses Brady and Atkins claims.

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In answering the Republican claim that jurisdiction over the murder committed by Thomas Nash (aka Jonathan Robbins) against a foreign citizen on a British ship was established by arraignments in a federal court in Trenton, Congressman John Marshall argued:

It has also been contended that the question of jurisdiction was decided at Trenton, by receiving indictments against persons there arraigned for the same offence, and by retaining them for trial after the return of the habeas corpus.

Every person in the slightest degree acquainted with judicial proceedings, knows that an indictment is no evidence of jurisdiction; and that, in criminal cases, the question of jurisdiction will seldom be made but by arrest of judgment after conviction.

The proceedings, after the return of the habeas corpus, only prove that the case was not such a case as to induce the Judge immediately to decide against his jurisdiction. The question was not free from doubt, and, therefore, might very properly be postponed until its decision should become necessary.

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A Fourth Circuit panel today ordered habeas relief to overturn a South Carolina capital conviction. The 2-1 decision was issued 14 months after argument. The underlying crime took place almost 30 years ago (in January 1982).

Judge King wrote the opinion for the panel in Elmore v. Ozmint, which was joined in by Judge Gregory. Judge Wilkinson wrote a dissenting opinion.

The combined opinions take up 194 pages (163 for the majority, 31 for the dissent).

Here are the first two paragraphs of Judge Wilkinson’s dissent:

It would be amusing, if it were not so very serious, to imagine for a moment the majority’s visit to a haberdashery. The visit would be a fun one, because my friends in the majority would try on every hat in the shop, except, of course, the one that might conceivably fit. Here, the majority dons the headwear of the jury, the state trial court, the state appellate court, the state post-conviction relief (PCR) court, and the federal district court, but then inexplicably leaves the premises without a passing glance at the cap befitting federal appellate judges reviewing under AEDPA the considered judgment of  a state court that a defendant’s counsel was not ineffective  and that there was no prejudice arising from that counsel’s  allegedly deficient performance.

The majority spends a considerable amount of time defending its conclusion that Edward Lee Elmore is entitled to habeas relief on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim.  But as Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.”  SEC v. Chenery  Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 214 (1947) (Jackson, J., dissenting).  Simply put, the majority’s rejection of the South Carolina  PCR court’s determination that defense counsel’s alleged  deficiencies did not result in prejudice cannot be squared with  the deferential standards required under AEDPA, the facts of  this case, or Supreme Court precedent. And in the course of its decision, the majority unjustly impugns the criminal justice system of South Carolina, slanders a deceased man who simply had the misfortune of discovering his neighbor’s mutilated body, and grants habeas relief to a prisoner whom overwhelming evidence suggests brutally raped and murdered an  elderly woman in her home. For these reasons, I respectfully dissent.

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This thoughtful essay by William Baude in The Wilson Quarterly is eminently worth reading.

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