From the US Supreme Court: Habeas No Corpus Today

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“We have found a witch! (A witch! a witch!) Burn her burn her!”

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The Writ of Habeas Corpus is a way to challenge illegal imprisonment. In fact, it’s been the primary way to do that since King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215.

It’s such an established part of our jurisprudence that the US Constitution doesn’t even pretend to grant the right. All the Constitution says, (in Article I, Section 9), is that habeas corpus can’t be suspended except “in cases of rebellion or invasion.” In other words, habeas corpus is a given.

But there’s always a catch, and the catch here is that the Constitution says nothing about imposing crippling limitations on the vehicles through which habeas corpus petitions must be brought.

By way of illustration, we thought we’d look at a recent per curiam decision of the US Supreme Court denying federal habeas corpus relief to a California inmate.

In Raul Lopez, Warden v. Marvin Vernis Smith, the Supreme Court overruled a federal district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had granted habeas corpus relief to the inmate, Marvin Vernis Smith. (the term ‘per curiam‘, by the way, is Latin for ‘by the court’; it implies that the court is speaking with one voice)

Mr. Smith had been convicted, after a jury trial in a California court, of first degree murder. He was given a sentence of 25 years to life. All of Smith’s state court appeals had been denied (an appellate court first overturned the conviction, then affirmed it – having been ordered by the California Supreme Court to think again).

So Mr. Smith sought habeas corpus relief in the federal courts. This is a time-honored procedure, as we’ve said: once your state court appeals run out, you can apply to the federal courts. To succeed in a federal court, however, you have to show that the state courts have denied you a right guaranteed under the US Constitution. Here, Mr. Smith argued that his right to due process and his sixth-amendment right “to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation” had been violated.

Mr. Smith’s wife Minnie had been found dead in the family home. The place appeared to have been ‘ransacked’, according to the Supreme Court’s opinion, and Mrs. Smith had been killed “by a massive blow to the head from a fireplace log roller.”

The evidence presented by the prosecution clearly pointed to a theory that Mr. Smith had tied his wife up, hit her with the log roller, and messed up the house to make it look like a thief had done it. The defense responded, however, that (1) Mr. Smith couldn’t possibly have killed Mrs. Smith with the log roller; recent rotator-cuff surgery would have made it physically impossible; and (2) one of Mr. Smith’s former employees might have done it (to get money to pay a debt to Mr. Smith!).

The prosecution, in closing, stood by the claim that Mr. Smith was the killer. But it added at the last minute an argument that even if he hadn’t done it himself, Mr. Smith would be guilty of murder if he had ‘aided and abetted’ the actual killer – whoever that might be.

This was the point at which the defendant cried foul. And as we’ve discussed, a California appellate court (on one pass, at least) agreed with Mr. Smith that this kind of bait-and-switch violated the constitution; a federal district court and the ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed as well.

But, sadly for Mr. Smith, the constitutionality of the state courts’ ruling was irrelevant, as far as the US Supreme Court was concerned. The court cited the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (‘AEDPA’). This law, which is designed to keep wisdom from trumping mob justice, says that federal courts can grant habeas corpus relief only when the state court’s decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” The Supreme Court noted that, in this case, the decisions cited by the Ninth Circuit in support of its ruling were Ninth Circuit cases – not Supreme Court cases. For this reason, the ‘clearly established’ standard required by AEDPA was not met, and the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Mr. Smith, of course, won’t be killed; he’ll just spend the rest of his life in prison (he’s over 70). But the decision should be seen as a signal that the Supreme Court is going to use AEDPA to strictly limit habeas corpus relief in death penalty cases.