The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to rule on a state prison inmate’s right to challenge in federal court when a new sentence has been imposed.  The key issue is whether such a challenge is barred when it could have been pursued in an earlier habeas plea. The Court thus granted review of the first question in Magwood v. Culliver (09-158).  In addition, the Court asked for the federal government’s views on an appeal by the Vatican, testing whether it is immune to damages lawsuits in U.S. courts for the sexual abuse of minors by priests in the U.S.  That case was Holy See v. John Doe (09-1).

In a summary decision, the Court ruled that a defense attorney had not provided inadequate legal assistance to a California death row inmate in a murder case by carefully composing the offering of favorable evidence so as not to provide an opening for prosecutors to bring in evidence of an earlier brutal murder.  The unsigned ruling in Wong v. Belmontes (08-1263) apparently will reinstate the death penalty against Fernando Belmontes, Jr., for a bludgeoning murder and a robbery in which the killer obtained $100 and used it to buy beer and drugs to consume that same night. The “Per Curiam” ruling — decided without formal briefing or oral argument — was tightly confined to the specific facts of the case, and did not appear to provide any new legal standard on the effectiveness of criminal trial lawyers’ work.

The Court refused, in a Nevada case, to reopen the constitutional controversy over students’ religious speeches at public school graduation ceremonies.  It denied without comment a student’s appeal in McComb, et al. v. Crehan, et al. (08-1566).  The Court also declined to hear a civil liberties group’s challenge to the Miami school board’s decision to ban from public school libraries a children’s book about life in Cuba — a ban that followed protests from the local Cuban-American community.  That case was ACLU of Florida v. Miami-Dade County School Board (08-1564).

In another order, the Court – in a case involving six “Redskins” trademarks owned by the pro football team in Washington — refused to clarify when a challenge may be made to an existing trademark.  The question raised in Harjo, et al. v. Pro-Football, Inc. (09-326) was whether such a challenge may be made at any time, or whether it must be pursued without delay.  The D.C. Circuit Court ruled that if a challenger waits years to contest a mark, the doctrine of “laches” bars the claim, thus turning aside the claim that the “Redskins” marks were illegal because they were disparaging to Native Americans.  The Circuit Court found that a group of Native Americans had waited at least eight years before formally moving to get the six trademarks cancelled.

The new habeas case that the Court will hear involves an Alabama death-row inmate, Billy Joe Magwood of New Brockton.  He was sentenced to die for murdering a county sheriff in front of the county jail.  He has long suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and believed that the Army had sent him orders through a surgically implanted device that the sheriff and other authorities were interfering with completion of his “mission.”

After an original death sentence for Magwood was overturned in 1986, he was again given a death sentence following a new proceeding in state court.  After state courts rejected his challenge to the new sentence, Magwood’s lawyers filed for federal habeas, contending that he had had no notice that a state court ruling adverse to his case would be applied retroactively, and thus to his case.  A federal judge ruled in his favor, but the Eleventh Circuit Court overturned that result.  The Circuit Court ruled that the claim of a lack of fair warning was a second or successive habeas claim, and thus was barred.  The claim could have been raised at Magwood’s initial sentencing, that court decided.

In taking the case on to the Supreme Court, Magwood’s counsel argued that habeas petitions brought against new sentences should be treated as initial, first challenges when an inmate has succeeded in winning a chance for a new sentence.  Oral argument of the case is likely to be in March.

The Vatican case in which the Court invited the U.S. Solicitor General to weigh in on an attempt by the Holy See to head off a damages lawsuit in federal court in Oregon over alleged sexual abuse by a parish priest in Portland in 1965 and 1966.  The lawsuit was filed by an individual identified in court papers only as “John V. Doe.”  The lawsuit claimed that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which normally shields foreign governments from damage claims in U.S. courts for official actions, allows such a case to go forward if a government was responsible for one of its employees’ conduct, taken as part of their regular work. 

The Vatican is formally a foreign government.  The Ninth Circuit Court ruled that the “John Doe” lawsuit could go ahead, relying on an Oregon law that makes an employer responsible for an employee’s misconduct, if the employee had been placed in a position that later led to the wrongdoing — even when the wrongdoing itself was outside the scope of the employee’s job.

The Supreme Court will await the federal government’s response before deciding whether to hear the case and rule on it.  There is no deadline for the Solicitor General’s response.

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