Supreme Court opening opinions: qualified immunity, AEDPA, and military statute of limitations
The U.S. Supreme Court opened its October 2020 Term with short opinions on qualified immunity, AEDPA, and a military statute of limitations.
In Taylor v. Riojas, decided Nov. 2, the Court held that corrections officers were not entitled to qualified immunity for holding Trent Taylor in “shockingly unsanitary” prison cells.
The officers kept Taylor, an inmate in the Texas Department of Corrections, in one cell covered in “massive amounts” of feces, and another cell that was “frigidly cold” and with overflowing sewage.
The Fifth Circuit held such conditions violated the Eighth Amendment, but the corrections officers were entitled to qualified immunity because “the law wasn’t clearly established” that prisoners couldn’t be housed in such cells “for only six days.”
The Supreme Court, in a 7-1 per curiam opinion, reversed.
“Qualified immunity shields an officer from suit when she makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she confronted,” the Court said.
“But no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time,” the Court said.
“[A]ny reasonable officer should have realized that Taylor’s conditions of confinement offended the Constitution,” the Court concluded.
Justice Thomas dissented, without opinion. Justice Barrett took no part in the case.
In Shinn v. Kayer, decided Dec. 14, the Court held the Ninth Circuit had not given AEDPA-required deference to a state court’s decision denying postconviction relief.
George Kayer sought federal habeas relief on grounds that his trial counsel at his capital trial failed to investigate mitigating circumstances.
Arizona courts, applying the test from Strickland v. Washington, held counsel’s performance was not deficient because Kayer had refused to cooperate with a mitigation investigation. But even if counsel’s performance was deficient, Arizona courts held there was no prejudice.
The U.S. District court rejected Kayer’s federal habeas claim.
But the Ninth Circuit held Kayer’s counsel should have investigated mitigation, and that counsel’s failures likely affected Kayer’s death sentence.
The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 per curiam opinion, reversed.
Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2254(d), federal habeas relief cannot be granted on any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in a state court proceeding, unless the adjudication “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.”
The Arizona courts applied the correct governing standard of Strickland, the Court said. Hence, in order to prevail, “the prisoner must show that the state court’s decision is so obviously wrong that its error lies beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.”
“Because the Strickland standard is general standard, a state court has even more latitude to reasonably determine that a defendant has not satisfied that standard,” the Court said.
The Ninth Circuit “essentially evaluated the merits de novo” “without ever framing the relevant question as whether a fairminded jurist could reach a different conclusion,” the Court said.
The Ninth Circuit “impermissibly substituted its own judgment for that of the state court instead of applying deferential review.”
Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan dissented, without opinion.
Military statute of limitations
In United States v. Briggs, decided Oct. 13, a unanimous Court held that a prosecution for rape can be brought at any time under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Three military service members, who were charged with rapes occurring between 1986 to 2006, claimed their prosecutions were time-barred because the UCMJ imposed a five-year statute of limitations.
During the time period at issue, the UCMJ provided a general statute of limitations of five years for noncapital offenses. However, it also provided there was no statute of limitations for offenses “punishable by death,” and it provided that rape was “punishable by death.”
The military service members contended that because Coker v. Georgia (1977) held the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment for rape of an adult woman, the service members could not, in fact, be sentenced to death, and therefore, the general five-year statute of limitations applied to them.
The Court, as a matter of statutory interpretation, rejected their claim.
Various provisions of the UCMJ indicated Congress intended there be no statute of limitations for rape, the Court said.
The purpose of statutes of limitation is to promote clarity, the Court said. Congress could not have intended to adopt a statute of limitations that would be dependent on the Supreme Court’s uncertain and changeable death penalty jurisprudence.
The Court also noted that under current federal law applicable to civilians, there is no statute of limitations for many sexual offenses.
Justice Barrett took no part in the case.