On January 14, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Jennings v. Stephens, held that habeas petitioners who are granted relief on some grounds, but not others, may in an appeal by the State defend the judgment on grounds rejected by the district court, without a taking a cross-appeal or a obtaining a certificate of appealability.

 The opinion gives habeas petitioners greater latitude to uphold wins on appeal.

 Facts:  Jennings was convicted and sentenced to death for capital murder. 

He sought federal habeas relief on three grounds.  Two alleged “Wiggins claims” that trial counsel was ineffective at sentencing in failing to present evidence of Jennings’ disadvantaged background and mental deficits.  The third alleged a “Spisak claim” that counsel was ineffective by arguing in closing that he could not “quarrel with” a death sentence, but the jury should nevertheless grant mercy.

 he district court granted relief on both “Wiggins claims,” but denied relief on the “Spisak claim.”  The court ordered that Jennings be released, unless the state granted him a new sentencing hearing or resentenced him to a term of imprisonment in accord with state law.

The State appealed.

 Jennings did not take a cross-appeal or seek a certificate of appealability on his losing “Spisak claim.”

Jennings argued on appeal that the district court correctly decided the “Wiggins claims,” but also argued the judgment should be affirmed because counsel was ineffective under the Spisak theory.

The Fifth Circuit reversed the grant of relief on the “Wiggins claims,” and held that it lacked jurisdiction to consider the Spisak theory because Jennings had not filed a notice of appeal to take a cross-appeal, and had not obtained a certificate of appealability.

Holding:  The Supreme Court held that Jennings was not required to cross-appeal or obtain a certificate of appealability for his Spisak theory to be considered in defense of the judgment.

The Court applied the traditional rule that an “appellee who does not take a cross-appeal may ‘urge in support of a [judgment] any matter appearing before the record,” even though the argument “may involve an attack upon the reasoning of the lower court.”  An appellee who does not cross-appeal, however, cannot attack the judgment “with a view either to enlarging his own rights [under the judgment] or of lessening the rights of his adversary.”

Here, the question was whether asserting the “Spisak claim” on appeal expanded Jennings’ rights under the judgment, or lessened the State’s.  The Court held it did not.

The judgment ultimately called for Jennings to be released or resentenced.  Jennings sought no more than that on appeal in asserting the “Spisak claim” to defend the judgment.  The State’s rights under the judgment were to hold Jennings in custody pending resentencing.  Assertion of the “Spisak claim” did not lessen this.

The Court held that, in defending the judgment, Jennings could raise any alternative ground “present in the record.”  He may not, however, “simply argue any alternative basis, regardless of its origin.” 

While Jennings was not required to file a cross-appeal, the Court expressly listed several instances were a cross-appeal would be required.

First, a petitioner who won resentencing is required to take a cross-appeal in order to raise a rejected claim that would result in a new trial.

Second, even when a petitioner wins a new trial in the district court, a claim that his conduct was constitutionally beyond the power of the State to punish requires a cross-appeal.

Third, the Court suggested – without deciding – that a cross-appeal may be required in cases where a district court “explicitly imposes (or the appellee asks the appellate court explicitly to impose) a condition governing the details of the retrial.” 

On the certificate of appealability question, 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2253(c) provides that “an appeal may not be taken to the court of appeals” without a certificate of appealability. 

The Court stated it is “unclear whether this requirement applies to a habeas petitioner seeking to cross-appeal in a case that is already before a court of appeals.”

But the Court ultimately sidestepped that question “since it is clear that [Sec.] 2253(c) applies only when ‘an appeal’ is taken.”  “Whether or not this embraces a cross-appeal, it assuredly does not embrace the defense of a judgment on alternative grounds,” the Court held.

The defense of a judgment on alternative grounds is simply not “an appeal,” the Court concluded.

The Court reversed the Fifth Circuit affirmance, and remanded the case for consideration of Jennings’ “Spisak ” argument.