Supreme Court Issues Decisions on Batson, Deportation of Persons Convicted of Crimes, Speedy Sentencing, Conspiracy, and AEDPA Deference
The U.S. Supreme Court issued five decisions through mid-May of importance to public defenders.
In a widely-publicized decision, Foster v. Chatman, decided May 23, the Court held that Georgia prosecutors violated Batson by, among other reasons, making notes in their file that focused on potential jurors’ race.
The case provides a roadmap for defense counsel for how to prove a Batson claim. The case may also show a greater willingness by the Supreme Court to review decisions from state postconviction proceedings, rather than only from federal habeas.
The prosecution, in Timothy Foster’s capital trial, used peremptory strikes against all four eligible black prospective jurors. The Georgia Supreme Court rejected Foster’s Batson claim on direct appeal.
Foster next pursued state postconviction, during which he used the state open records law to obtain documents from the prosecution’s trial file related to jury selection.
Those documents showed, among other things, that members of the prosecutor’s office highlighted black jurors’ names in green and wrote the letter “B” by each; that they wrote “No Black Church” in the notes; and that they wrote that “if it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors, [this one] might be okay.”
The postconviction court denied relief. The Georgia Supreme Court denied a certificate to appeal.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The Court, with six justices in the majority, held that Foster demonstrated purposeful discrimination.
The Court rejected the State’s claim that the prosecutor’s notes not be considered. In reviewing a Batson claim, “all of the circumstances that bear upon the issue of racial animosity must be consulted,” the Court said. Determining whether purposeful discrimination occurred “demands a sensitive inquiry into such circumstantial … evidence of intent as may be available.”
Although the prosecutor offered “race neutral” reasons for striking the black jurors, the Court found it “compelling” that similarly-situated non-black jurors were not struck.
“But that is not all,” the Court said. The prosecutors also gave “shifting explanations” for their strikes during the litigation, made “misrepresentations of the record,” and had a “persistent focus on race in the prosecution’s file.”
“[W]e are left with the firm conviction that the strikes … were ‘motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent,’” the Court held.
Justice Alito concurred. He agreed that the “totality of the evidence now adduced by Foster is sufficient to make out a Batson violation,” but cautioned against the Court’s recent “predilection for granting review of state-court decisions denying postconviction relief.”
Justice Thomas dissented.
In Luna Torres v. Lynch, decided May 19, the Court issued a decision that will increase deportation of people convicted of state criminal offenses.
The Court ruled that, under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), a state crime counts as an “aggravated felony” when it corresponds to a listed federal offense, even though the state crime lacks the interstate commerce element used in the federal statute.
George Luna was a lawful permanent resident who had immigrated to the U.S. as a child. He pleaded guilty to attempted arson in New York state court, and was sentenced to one day in prison, and five years of probation. The Government sought to deport him.
The INA imposes immigration consequences on aliens convicted of “aggravated felonies,” including making the person ineligible for discretionary relief of cancellation of removal.
INA defines “aggravated felony” by listing various crimes, most of which are identified as offenses described in specified provisions of the federal criminal code. Immediately following that list, INA provides in 8 U.S.C. Sec. 1101(a)(43) that aggravated felony “applies to an offense described in this paragraph whether in violation of Federal or State law” or foreign law.
Luna argued that his state crime did not count as an aggravated felony because it lacked the interstate commerce element used in the federal arson statute.
But in a 5-3 opinion, the Court disagreed. The state arson statute corresponded with the federal arson statute in all ways except the interstate commerce element.
Federal criminal laws contain an interstate commerce element in order to establish legislative jurisdiction, i.e., Congress’ power to enact the law. State criminal laws do not need such a “jurisdictional hook” since states have general police powers, the Court said.
“We hold that the absence of such a jurisdictional element [in a state law] is immaterial: A state crime of that kind is an aggravated felony,” the Court concluded.
Justices Sotomayor, Thomas and Breyer dissented.
In Betterman v. Montana, decided May 19, a unanimous Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment’s speedy trial guarantee does not apply to sentencing. The Court indicated, however, that people harmed by lengthy delays in sentencing may seek relief under the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Thomas Betterman pleaded guilty to an offense and was jailed over 14 months awaiting sentencing. The delay was caused by preparation of a presentencing report, two presentence motions, and delay in scheduling a sentencing hearing.
Betterman argued that the delay violated the Sixth Amendment speedy trial guarantee.
But the Court disagreed. That right ends “upon conviction,” the Court held.
The right to a speedy trial is aimed at “protecting the presumptively innocent” accused, the Court said. That “loses force upon conviction.”
Since the traditional remedy for violation of the right to a speedy trial is dismissal of the charges, the Court said it “would be an unjustified windfall, in most cases, to remedy sentencing delay by vacating validly obtained convictions.”
“That does not mean, however, that defendants lack any protection against undue delay at this stage,” the Court said. Federal and state rules or statutes may require prompt sentencing.
Furthermore, “a defendant’s due process right to liberty, while diminished, is still present,” the Court said. “Relevant considerations may include the length of and reasons for delay, the defendant’s diligence in requesting expeditious sentencing, and prejudice.”
The Court expressly did not decide the questions whether the speedy trial clause “applies to bifurcated proceedings in which, at the sentencing stage, facts that could increase the prescribed sentencing range are determined,” and “whether the right reattaches upon renewed prosecution following a defendant’s successful appeal, when he again enjoys the presumption of innocence.”
In Ocasio v. United States, decided May 2, the Court held a conspiracy to violate the Hobbs Act can be based on agreements to obtain property from another conspirator with his consent.
Police officer Samuel Ocasio conspired with a local auto repair shop to refer vehicles damaged in accidents to the repair shop in exchange for a monetary kickback. The shop owners willingly participated in the scheme, since it greatly increased the shop owners’ business.
Ocasio and the shop owners were charged with violating the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 1951, and of conspiring to violate the Hobbs Act in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sec. 371.
Ocasio contended that, as a matter of law, he could not be convicted of conspiring with the shop owners to obtain money from them under color of right, because a conspiracy requires obtaining money or property from someone who is not a member of the conspiracy.
But the Court disagreed.
“Under longstanding principles of conspiracy law, a defendant may be convicted of conspiring to violate the Hobbs Act based on proof that he entered into a conspiracy that had as its objective the obtaining of property from another conspirator with his consent and under color of official right,” the Court held.
The Court rejected Ocasio’s argument that his conduct was not “extortion.” The Court said that under Evans v. United States, 504 U.S. 255 (1992), Hobbs Act extortion under color of right includes the “rough equivalent” of “taking a bribe.”
An unusual group of justices questioned the decision or dissented.
Justice Breyer concurred, but only because the Court was not re-examining Evans. He said Evans “may well have been wrongly decided.”
Justice Thomas dissented, as he had in Evans, and said the majority “expands criminal liability in a way that conflicts with principles of federalism.”
Justice Sotomayor and Chief Justice Roberts dissented. They said that the majority “interprets the phrase extorting property ‘from another’ in the Hobbs Act contrary to [a] natural understanding” that extorting money or property usually involves a victim outside the group of conspirators, not one of themselves. They, too, expressed concern that the Court was expanding the law of conspiracy to fit “whatever a prosecutor needs in a given case.”
In a brief per curiam opinion issued May 16, Kernan v. Hinojosa, the Court again emphasized the deference federal courts must give state courts under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
Antonio Hinojosa’s state court claim had been dismissed by the Orange County, California, Superior Court for having been filed in the wrong county. The California Supreme Court then summarily denied a writ of habeas corpus without explanation.
When the case reached the Ninth Circuit, it used the Supreme Court’s decision in Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797 (1991), to “look through” the California Supreme Court’s summary denial to the Superior Court’s dismissal for improper venue. The Ninth Circuit then decided that the Superior Court’s decision was not “on the merits,” so the Ninth Circuit was not bound by AEDPA deference.
But the Supreme Court disagreed. “In Ylst, we said that where ‘the last reasoned opinion on the claim explicitly imposes a procedural default, we will presume that a later decision rejecting the claim did not silently disregard that bar and consider the merits,” the Court said. “But we pointedly refused to make the presumption irrebuttable; ‘strong evidence can refute it.’”
The presumption was rebutted here, the Court held. The California Supreme Court could not have rejected Hinojosa’s claim on “improper venue” grounds, since there was only one California Supreme Court, and that was “only venue” in which Hinojosa could have sought a writ of habeas corpus in that court. Thus, the California Supreme Court’s decision did not rest on the same grounds as the Superior Court’s.
Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented. They believed the California Supreme Court “easily could have denied his petition because it agreed with the Superior Court’s conclusion that he filed the first petition in the wrong county."