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[UPDATE: Additional discussion at Woollard, MacDonald, and Standing to Raise a “Facial Challenge” and here.]

A split panel of the Fourth Circuit yesterday granted habeas relief to a forty-seven year-old Virginia man convicted of criminally soliciting oral sex from a seventeen year-old girl. (HT and with link to AP coverage: Howard Bashman at How Appealing) The court held that the conviction was invalid because the predicate felony of sodomy was based on an unconstitutional provision of state law. Judge King wrote the opinion for the court in MacDonald v. Moosein which Judge Motz joined. Judge Diaz dissented.

The panel majority reasons that the Virginia “anti-sodomy provision” is facially unconstitutional under Lawrence v. Texas because of Lawrence’s reasoning about Bowers v. Hardwick, which the Fourth Circuit describes as having involved a facial challenge to a materially indistinguishable Georgia statute. According to the panel opinion, “the invalid Georgia statute in Bowers is materially indistinguishable from the [Virginia] anti-sodomy provision being challenged here.” And although the Supreme Court upheld the materially indistinguishable Georgia statute against a facial constitutional challenge in Bowers, the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas “recognized that the facial due process challenge in Bowers was wrongly decided.”  In other words (as Judge Diaz fairly reconstructs the majority’s argument in his dissent), “the majority reasons that MacDonald’s facial challenge must succeed just as–according to Lawrence–the facial challenge in Bowers should have.”

This decision is obviously mistaken about Bowers and Lawrence, and profoundly mistaken about the nature of constitutional adjudication.

To begin with, Bowers did not involve a “facial due process challenge.” The opinion for the Court in Bowers explicitly states: “The only claim properly before the Court . . . is Hardwick’s challenge to the Georgia statute as applied to consensual homosexual sodomy. We express no opinion on the constitutionality of the Georgia statute as applied to other acts of sodomy.” This mistake alone renders the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning unsustainable on its own terms. The panel opinion reasons that the Virginia statute is facially unconstitutional because the Georgia statute is facially unconstitutional, but Bowers simply did not deal with the alleged facial unconstitutionality of Georgia’s statute.

The Fourth Circuit’s majority opinion is also wrong to describe Lawrence as resolving a claim of facial unconstitutionality. The panel majority’s misapprehension of this decision can be seen in the way the panel describes the three questions presented in Lawrence:

(1) whether the criminalization of strictly homosexual sodomy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; (2) more broadly, whether criminalization of sodomy per se between consenting adults contravened the fundamental liberty and privacy interests protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause; and (3) whether Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), which upheld against facial challenge a Georgia statute criminalizing all sodomy, should be overruled.

The panel opinion’s paraphrase of the first two questions presented materially changes both of those questions (and I have already explained what is wrong with the description of the third question). The Supreme Court actually undertook to address the narrower questions “[w]hether petitioners’ criminal convictions” violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s requirements of equal protection or due process. Under the Supreme Court’s formulation, the alleged violations of the Constitution inhere in petitioners’ convictions, not in the state’s legislation. And the Court’s supporting reasoning throughout the opinion is all about the petitioners’ personal interests in liberty and privacy.

As if to underscore the personal nature of the rights at issue and the importance of this as-applied understanding to its framing of the analysis, the portion of the Lawrence opinion for the Court that describes the questions presented concludes: “The petitioners were adults at the time of the alleged offense. Their conduct was in private and consensual.” And in concluding the opinion as a whole, Justice Kennedy highlights again that “[t]he present case does not involve minors. It does not involve persons who might be injured or coerced or who are situated in relationships where consent might not easily be refused.” Instead, the case involved “two adults” who engaged in sexual practices “with full and mutual consent from each other.”

Mr. MacDonald’s criminal solicitation did not involve two adults, but did involve a minor in a relationship “where consent might not easily be refused.” Yet the Fourth Circuit’s misreading of Bowers and Lawrence as involving facial invalidation permits what Virginia law has forbidden.

In light of the panel majority’s mistaken characterizations of both Bowers and Lawrence, the panel majority should not have been “confident” that Virginia’s “anti-sodomy provision, prohibiting sodomy between two persons without any qualification, is facially unconstitutional.” And at the very least, the panel majority should not have dismissed Judge Diaz’s conclusion that the Virginia courts had not made a decision that was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The panel majority’s reasoning would not have been sufficient to reverse a federal district court on direct appeal, much less displace a state appellate ruling under AEDPA’s standard of review.

There is more that could be said in criticism of the panel majority’s opinion (such as with respect to its misapplication of Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood). But I hope such criticisms will be rendered unnecessary by the grant of en banc rehearing.

The odds of such rehearing are never good, of course, and Virginia has an even steeper uphill climb given the panel composition and the composition of the en banc court. Yet it is no small thing for the Fourth Circuit panel to do what it did here, and the defects in analysis are not difficult to see. Moreover, there are both narrower ways (like Judge Diaz’s) and also broader ways of affirming the district court’s denial of habeas relief.

Whether or not the Fourth Circuit grants rehearing, however, it is worth mentioning a more fundamental problem with the panel majority’s conception of constitutional adjudication, a problem that will remain even if this opinion’s particular manifestation of the problem is deprived of legal effect by the grant of en banc rehearing. That problem is the legislative conception of judicial review inherent in its description of the effect of constitutional adjudication.

In the panel majority’s view, the so-called anti-sodomy provision in Virginia law “does not survive the Lawrence decision.” The panel reasons that– because Lawrence killed this provision–the underlying prosecution was not for solicitation of a felony but rather for solicitation of “an act that is not, at the moment, a crime in Virginia.” Indeed, the panel majority states, ” [t]he Commonwealth may as well have charged MacDonald for telephoning Ms. Johnson on the night in question, or for persuading her to meet him at the Home Depot parking lot.” But this is all wrong. Supreme Court decisions about constitutional matters do not decriminalize acts or change state legal codes. Supreme Court decisions may render certain state actions unconstitutional. But such judicial decisions (whether by the Supreme Court or any other federal court for that matter) cannot and do not change what is and is not criminal under state law. Yet that is precisely the effect attributed by the panel opinion to the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence.

The panel opinion is right that “the Commonwealth cannot simply wave a magic wand and decree by fiat conduct as criminal . . .” But the Commonwealth did no such thing. It declared conduct criminal through ordinary legislation, and the Fourth Circuit has now erroneously set aside a conviction for violation of that ordinary state legislation through an extraordinary exercise of the federal judicial power.

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