United States Supreme Court Decisions: 2017-2018 Term
LAST UPDATED ON OCTOBER 2, 2017
WILSON v. SELLERS, No. 16-6855
Cert. granted: February 27, 2017
Argument: October 30, 2017
Decided: Not yet decided
The question presented, as stated in the merits brief filed by Petitioner, Marion Wilson, a prisoner on Georgia death row, is as follows:
Did this Court’s decision in Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86 (2011), silently abrogate the presumption set forth in Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797 (1991) – that a federal court sitting in habeas proceedings should “look through” a summary state court ruling to review the last reasoned decision – as a slim majority of the en banc Eleventh Circuit held in this case, despite the agreement of both parties that the Ylst presumption should continue to apply?
In lay terms, the Court is asked to decide whether federal courts reviewing a claim in a petition for writ of habeas corpus should consider the findings and reasoning of a lower state court which denied that claim where the state appellate court issued no opinion. In the 1991 Supreme Court decision of Ylst v. Nunnemaker, the Court held that “[w]here there has been one reasoned state judgment rejecting a federal claim, later unexplained orders upholding that judgment or rejecting the same claim rest upon the same ground.” But twenty years later, in 2011, the Supreme Court decided Harrington v. Richter, which addressed a situation in which the state court that considered the claim issued only a summary denial without any written opinion. The Supreme Court ruled that, under those circumstances, federal courts must treat the issues raised in the petition as if the state court decided them on the merits. It further ruled that the federal court must deny habeas relief on the claim if it can think of any reasonable basis to justify the state court's decision, whether or not that is actual reason the state court denied the claim.
In this case, Mr. Wilson was sentenced to death in Baldwin County, Georgia in 1997. In his state post-conviction proceedings, he alleged that his trial counsel had been ineffective in failing to investigate and present available mitigating evidence. After holding an evidentiary hearing, the trial-level state habeas court denied relief, issuing a written order explaining the court's reasoning. Mr. Wilson then asked the Georgia Supreme Court for permission to appeal the order, which the court summarily denied in a one-sentence order. Wilson then reasserted the his ineffective assistance of counsel as part of his federal habeas corpus petition, and argued that the state court had unreasonably determined the facts and unreasonably applied the law when it denied him relief on this claim. Although the Georgia federal district court denied relief, it nevertheless found that the state court's decision had been deeply flawed, both factually and legally.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, in a splintered 6-5 en banc decision, ruled that the district court should not have reviewed the opinion of the trial-level state habeas court at all because the Georgia Supreme Court had issued a summary denial of relief. Applying the rule in Richter to cases in which there had been a reasoned lower state-court opinion, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that "federal courts need not 'look through' a summary decision on the merits to review the reasoning of the lower state court." The Court decided only this specific legal issue and sent the case back to the 3-judge panel to consider the remaining issues in Wilson's case.
The same issue was raised last Term by another Georgia death-row prisoner, Travis Hittson, who was executed on February 17, 2016. Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Kagan, wrote an opinion concurring in the denial of certioriari in Hittson's case, but suggesting that the Eleventh Circuit had erred when it ignored the actual reasoning of the trial court judge and instead created "hypothetical theories that could have supported the Georgia Supreme Court’s unexplained order." In that case, Justice Ginsburg did not think certiorari was appropriate, because even though the Eleventh Circuit had misapplied the law, she believed the district court had correctly denied relief; she also noted that the Eleventh Circuit had already agreed to review Wilson's case en banc and would have the opportunity to correct its mistake.
You can read case-related documents on SCOTUSBlog.
AYESTAS v. DAVIS, No. 16-6795
Cert. granted: April 3, 2017
Argument: October 30, 2017
Decided: Not yet decided
The question presented,* as stated in the merits brief filed by Petitioner, Carlos Ayestas, a prisoner on Texas death row, is as follows:
Whether the Fifth Circuit erred in holding that 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f) withholds “reasonably necessary” resources to investigate and develop an IAC [ineffective assistance of counsel] claim that state habeas counsel forfeited, where the claimant’s existing evidence does not meet the ultimate burden of proof at the time the § 3599(f) motion is made.
(*Ayestas presented two questions for review, but the Supreme Court only granted review of the second question.) Ayestas, who has been diagnosed since trial with schizophrenia, was convicted and sentenced to death in Harris County, Texas in 1997. After his state appeals were completed, Ayestas alleged in his federal habeas proceedings that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate, develop, and present mitigating evidence--particularly evidence of mental illness and drug addiction--and that his state post-conviction attorneys were likewise ineffective for failing to present this claim during the state post-conviction proceedings. The federal district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Ayestas relief for procedural reasons, but while his appeal was pending, the Supreme Court decided Trevino v. Thaler and Ayestas's case was remanded for further consideration of the claim. On remand, the district court denied Ayestas's request for funding to investigate and develop the factual basis for his claim--a request that was necessary in order to show that he was prejudiced from his prior counsel's inadequate performance. Under the applicable federal statute, a prisoner will be entitled to funding that is "reasonably necessary" to investigate and develop his claims, but the Fifth Circuit has interpretted “reasonably necessary” to require a showing of “substantial need.” The Fifth Circuit affirmed the denial of funding in Ayestas's case, finding that the claim was not worthy of fact development because "even if Ayestas had entered the early stages of an as-yet undiagnosed mental illness, [it] f[ou]nd it at best to be conceivable, but not substantially likely, that the outcome may have been different." In other words, without having the benefit of funding to develop a claim, the Fifth Circuit determined that Ayestas had not shown prejudice supporting his claim.
You can read case-related documents on SCOTUSBlog.
McCOY v. LOUISIANA, No. 16-8255
Cert. granted: September 28, 2017
Argument: Not yet scheduled
Decided: Not yet decided
The question presented,* as stated in the petition for writ of certiorari filed by Petitioner, Robert McCoy, a prisoner on Louisiana death row, is as follows:
Is it unconstitutional for defense counsel to concede an accused’s guilt over the accused’s express objection?
(*McCoy presented two questions for review, but the Supreme Court only granted review of the first question.) In August 2011, McCoy was convicted in Bossier Parish, Louisiana, of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in January 2012. According to the petition, McCoy adamantly maintained his innocence throughout his trial proceedings, and ultimately sought removal of his appointed public defenders because they were "doing nothing to assist him in proving his innocence." McCoy's family borrowed money against their car title and hired an attorney for $5000 to represent McCoy. His attorney informed McCoy two weeks prior to trial that he would have to concede McCoy's guilt in order to save his life. Disagreeing with this strategy, McCoy attempted to have his attorney removed and to represent himself, but the court would not allow him to do so. During trial, counsel repeatedly admitted that McCoy killed the victims, even though McCoy testified in his own defense, asserting his innocence and explaining that a drug-trafficking ring was responsible for the murders. McCoy raised the constitutionality of his lawyer's actions on appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. That court held that defense counsel had authority to determine whether to concede guilt, even over the objection of the client.
You can read case-related documents on SCOTUSblog.
Certiorari Granted—Judgment Vacated and Case Remanded
Long v. Davis, No. 16-8909 (U.S. Oct. 2, 2017), cert. granted, judgment vacated, and case remanded to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for further consideration of Steven Long's (pictured) death sentence in light of decision in Moore v. Texas, the case in which the Supreme Court struck down Texas's standard for evaluating intellectual disability in death-penalty cases. In August 2017, Long obtained a stay of execution from the state court of criminal appeals to litigate whether he was ineligible for the death penalty because of his intellectual disability.
Weathers v. Davis, No. 16-9446 (U.S. Oct. 9, 2017), cert. granted, judgment vacated, and case remanded to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for further consideration of Obie Weathers's (pictured) claim of intellectual disability in light of Moore v. Texas.
Wright v. Florida, No. 17-5575 (U.S. Oct. 16, 2017), cert. granted, judgment vacated, and case remanded to the Supreme Court of Florida for further consideration of Tavares Wright's (pictured) claim of intellectual disability in light of Moore v. Texas.
Tharpe v. Sellers, No. 17-6075 (U.S. Sept. 26, 2017) (Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch dissenting). Three hours after his execution was scheduled to begin, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution of Keith Tharpe (pictured), a Georgia death-row prisoner who sought review of a claim that he had been unconstitutionally sentenced to death because a white juror who "harbored profound racial animus against African Americans" had voted to sentence Tharpe to death because he is black. Over the dissents of Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch, the Court issued a stay of execution on September 26, pending a final ruling on whether to review a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that had denied Tharpe permission to appeal the issue. The Supreme Court's stay order specifies that the stay "shall terminate automatically" if the Court ultimately decides not to review the issue or if the Court ultimately rules against Tharpe.
Under Supreme Court rules, the votes of four Justices are normally sufficient to grant review of a prisoner's appeal. However, the votes of five Justices are required to stay an execution, which effectively overrides the Court's rules for granting review in circumstances in which a death-row prisoner faces an active death warrant.
Tharpe's petition for writ of certiorari is discussed below under Petitions of Interest. For more on the Court's stay order, read Supreme Court Stays Execution in Georgia Case Raising Issue of Jury Racism.
HIDALGO v. ARIZONA, No. 17-251
Petition filed: August 14, 2017
Arizona death-row prisoner Abel Daniel Hidalgo has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of the state's capital punishment statute under the Eighth Amendment.
Questions Presented: (1) Whether Arizona's capital sentencing scheme, which includes so many aggravating circumstances that virtually every defendant convicted of first-degree murder is eligible for death, violates the Eighth Amendment; and (2) whether the death penalty in and of itself violates the Eighth Amendment, in light of contemporary standards of decency.
THARPE v. SELLERS, No. 17-6075
Petition filed: September 23, 2017
Georgia death-row prisoner Keith Tharpe has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of a death sentence imposed by a jury that included a white juror who Tharpe later learned had made racist statements indicating that race motivated his decision to sentence Tharpe to death. The case also presents a number of procedural issues that are prerequisites to Tharpe receiving review of his claim of juror bias.
Questions Presented (quoting from Keith Tharpe's petition for writ of certiorari):
(Note—The petition for review contains the explicit, offensive racial slur used by the racist juror in Tharpe's case.)
Petitioner was scheduled to be executed September 26, 2017, despite evidence that racism played a pivotal role in his death sentence. No court has addressed this claim on the merits, even though it was first raised in post-conviction proceedings almost twenty years ago.
A few years after trial, a juror who had voted to impose death told Petitioner’s state habeas attorneys that he had favored the death penalty because Petitioner was a “nigger” who had killed someone the juror considered “‘good’ black folk,” and that his Bible study had led him to “wonder if black people even have souls.” The state habeas court ruled these statements and other proof evincing the juror’s racist beliefs and their impact on Petitioner’s sentence inadmissible under Georgia’s evidence rule barring jurors from impeaching their verdict, and found Petitioner’s juror-bias claim procedurally defaulted. In federal habeas corpus proceedings, the district court adopted the state courts’ procedural default ruling, a finding left undisturbed on appeal.
Last term, this Court decided two cases bearing on Petitioner’s claim. In Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 137 S. Ct. 855, 869 (2017), the Court held that a state’s no-impeachment rule may not bar consideration of evidence “that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in [a] juror’s vote to convict.” In Buck v. Davis, 137 S. Ct. 759, 778 (2017), the Court recognized that the possibility that someone “may have been sentenced to death because of his race” was an “extraordinary circumstance” warranting relief from judgment under Fed.R.Civ.Proc. 60(b)(6). Invoking Pena-Rodriguez and Buck, Petitioner moved under Rule 60(b) to reopen the judgment in his case.
The district court denied the motion. It held that Pena-Rodriguez was a new rule of criminal procedure that could not be applied retroactively under Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), and that, regardless, the state court’s conclusion that Petitioner had not shown prejudice sufficient to overcome any procedural default satisfied the standard set forth in Pena-Rodriguez, even though the state court in Petitioner’s case did not have the benefit of this Court’s guidance in that case and had not actually considered any of the evidence showing the juror’s racial bias.
A panel of the Eleventh Circuit denied a certificate of appealability, finding (1) that Petitioner had not shown that the district court abused its discretion in denying the Rule 60(b) motion because the court “applied the correct legal standard and based its decision on findings of fact not clearly erroneous”; (2) that, assuming Pena-Rodriguez applied retroactively, Petitioner had not “made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right” because he “failed to demonstrate that [the juror’s] behavior ‘had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict’” or that reasonable jurists would find the district court’s ruling debatable; and (3) that “[i]f [Petitioner] is correct that Pena-Rodriguez applies retroactively in post-conviction proceedings and thus gives rise to a constitutional claim he could not have brought to the [state habeas court], he is now free to pursue the claim in state court.” The federal courts’ rulings give rise to the following important questions:
- Could reasonable jurists disagree with the district court’s rejection of Petitioner’s Rule 60(b) motion and, accordingly, did the Eleventh Circuit err in denying a certificate of appealability?
- Given Petitioner’s credible evidence that a juror voted for the death penalty because he is a “nigger,” did the Eleventh Circuit err in ruling that he failed to make “a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right” under 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2).
- Did Pena-Rodriguez create a new constitutional claim and, if not, did the lower courts err in denying Petitioner’s motion for relief from judgment under Rule 60(b)(6)?
Read more about the case from DPIC: For Second Time in Two Years, Georgia Prepares to Execute Black Prisoner Whom White Juror Called N-Word and Supreme Court Stays Execution in Georgia Case Raising Issue of Jury Racism
TRUEHILL v. FLORIDA, No. 16-9448
Petition filed: June 2, 2017
Cert. Denied: October 16, 2017
Dissent: Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Breyer
Building upon Hurst v. Florida, a Supreme Court case from 2016 invalidating the state's death-penalty statute, Florida death-row prisoner Quentin Truehill has asked the the Court to further consider the constitutionality of the state's death-sentencing scheme. In his case, the jury was to provide only an "advisory" sentencing recommendation, which then permitted the judge to make the findings necessary for a sentence of death. The Questions presented in his petition are:
(1) Whether, when a Florida jury recommended a death sentence before the Supreme Court decided Hurst v. Florida and none of the findings required by Hurst were made, the error can be deemed harmless under Chapman v. California, or whether the recommendation simply does not amount to the jury verdict the Sixth Amendment requires; and (2) whether the death-sentencing procedures in this case complied with the Eighth Amendment, when the jury was repeatedly advised by the court that its advisory sentencing recommendation was non-binding.
On October 16, the Court denied review in this case over the dissent of three Justices. Justice Breyer dissented for the reasons set for in his opinion in Hurst, which reiterated that juries—not judges—should be the final decision-maker regarding whether to sentence someone to death. Justice Sotomayor, joined by justices Ginsburg and Breyer, dissented because the Florida Supreme Court has failed to address the constitutionality of prior sentencing procedures in light of the Court's decision in Hurst. Specifically, in Florida death-penalty cases, juries were instructed that their "verdict was merely advisory," an instruction that could be inconsistent with the Court's decision in Hurst which struck down the prior law that allowed judges to find facts necessary to impose a death sentence. In Justice Sotomayor's opinion, the Court should have granted review of the case "[b]ecause petitioners here raised a potentially meritorious Eighth Amendment challenge to their death sentences, and because the stakes in capital cases are too high to ignore such constitutional challenges."
Read the pleadings at SCOTUSBlog.