Monday, August 31, 2015

Death Penalty Oral Argument: Procedural Debate Belies Anger at State's Dysfunction

This morning, the Ninth Circuit (Judges Graber, Rawlinson and Watford) heard oral argument in Jones v. Davis (formerly Jones v. Chappell). As you may recall, the original case was decided by District Court Judge Cormac Carney, who found the death penalty in California unconstitutional because of the severe delays in its application. The decision was appealed by the Attorney General, and nothing much happened since then in terms of addressing the delays on death row.

What did happen more litigation relying on Jones--notably, Andrews v. Davis before the Ninth Circuit and People v. Seumanu before the California Supreme Court.

At today's hearing, the Government representative argued that Jones was barred from benefitting from the delay in his case for two reasons:

1. It is a claim purporting to create a new rule, not brought up before, and as such is barred by Teague v. Lane.

A little bit of background: New substantive rules apply retroactively. For example, if a certain behavior ceases to be a criminal offense, whoever is still doing time for that offense will probably be let out immediately. But for new procedural rules, appellants can benefit from them only if these rules come into being while their case is still "alive", that is, still under direct review. In the diagram to the left, the rule change can benefit people in situations (1) and (2), but not (3). Note that, if the new rule came into being when (2) was still under direct appeal, but now (2) is arguing for it in a habeas proceeding, (2) still gets to benefit from the rule. (3), however, does not--his case became final before the rule change.

What about announcing a new rule on Habeas? According to Teague v. Lane (1989), the dilemma is as follows: the defendant who is asking for the new rule is, essentially, (3) from the previous diagram. That is, he would not be able to benefit from the new rule if it were announced today in someone else's case. Which also means that all the people who are similarly situated to this defendant--whose cases are final and on habeas--will not benefit from the new rule. Since the court doesn't want to just announce the rule and not enforce it, or to enforce it only in the particular case and not in those similarly situated (inequality), it reached the bizarre conclusion that it will simply not announce new rules on Habeas--unless these rules fundamentally change criminal justice, either in terms of legalizing previously prohibited behavior or being a "watershed rule of criminal procedure."

Jones' representative, Michael Laurence from the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, argued that the issue at stake here is substantive, not procedural. That is, the application of the death penalty is not merely a change in procedure, but rather a fundamental issue of applying the death penalty, as it was regarded in Furman v. Georgia (1972), Atkins v. VA (2001), and Schriro v. Summerlin (2003), the latter specifying that "rules that regulate the manner of punishment" are considered substantive, rather than procedural. Even if it is a procedural rule, it is essentially a reframing of the problem of arbitrariness, which led to the death penalty abolition in Furman, and therefore not a "new one" but merely the application of an old one.

In response, the government's representative argued that the arbitrariness claim, in this context, is a "new rule", and moreover, a procedural one. There hasn't been precedent directly on point claiming that arbitrariness can manifest itself in delay, and since this is a new question, it cannot result in a new rule on Habeas under Teague.

There was some back and forth about whether the court's decision in Andrews, which rejected a Jones-based claim, should be used to interpret whether the rule is new or old. 

2. Even if it's a claim relying on an old rule, Jones has not exhausted his argument in state court (in fact, never brought this up in state court) and is therefore barred from raising it in federal court under the Habeas provisions in section 2254. As 2254(d)(1) says,

(d) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim—
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[.]
This was not the case here, claims the government; Jones didn't even go to state court, and cannot therefore challenge the sentence at the federal court.

Jones' representative argues that Jones benefits from an exception to the exhaustion clause, which appears in 2254(b)(2)(b)(ii):

(1)An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted unless it appears that—
the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State; or
there is an absence of available State corrective process; or
circumstances exist that render such process ineffective to protect the rights of the applicant.
This may seem very technical, but there's actually a lot of anger beneath the technicalities. As Jones argues through Laurence, the California Supreme Court would not have provided a cure to the delay, but rather delayed things even further. In 1997, the Ninth Circuit found that 140 people on death row were unrepresented, and released them from the timely submission obligations under AEDPA. Now, there are 358 unrepresented people. The wait for an attorney can be 16 (!!!) years, and after that, litigation can last 8-10 years (!!!)--all this time, obviously, spent by the applicant on death row. Amazingly, the only office limited in its number of lawyerly hires, the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, can only hire 34 (!!!) lawyers, which is a woefully inadequate number of people to handle 758 (!!!) cases. Before and after Jones, the California Supreme Court did nothing to remedy this situation, argued Laurence, and therefore there was no point in trying to "exhaust" the claim in state court. That would be, literally, exhausting.

In response, the government representative said that the prospective delays in state resolution of such issues is speculative.

There was also a bit of back and forth on the merits, with the government resisting the assertion that death penalty in California is "arbitrary" but rather that cases are carefully examined.

I'm hoping that, no matter the result in the Ninth Circuit, this case will go to the Supreme Court, where the dysfunctional application of capital punishment in the state might find a receptive ear in Justice Kennedy and in Justice Breyer, who explicitly said, in Glossip v. Gross, that he would welcome an opportunity to address the constitutionality of the death penalty on the merits.

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