Today’s Opinion in Panetti v. Quarterman
on Jun 28, 2007 at 1:34 pm
By a vote of five to four, the Court today reversed the Fifth Circuitâ€™s holding that a death-row inmate is competent to be executed notwithstanding his belief that the state of Texas wants to execute him to â€œstop him from preaching.â€ In an opinion by Justice Kennedy (joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) that once again served as a rebuke of the Fifth Circuit, the Court remanded the case for the district court to address petitioner Scott Panettiâ€™s Eighth Amendment claim in light of its opinion. Significantly, the Court declined to establish a rule that would govern all Eighth Amendment competency proceedings, creating a not-insignificant possibility (if the Fifth Circuit past is prologue) that the case could return to the Court in some later iteration. And although it isnâ€™t clear what the long-term precedential effects of the Courtâ€™s ruling will be in the competency context, the Court also articulated (albeit almost in passing) a fairly expansive conception of when federal courts may find a state courtâ€™s application of a general legal principle â€œunreasonableâ€ for AEDPA purposes.
In 1995, Scott Panetti was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death by a Texas jury for the 1992 slayings of his in-laws. [You can read Lyleâ€™s pre-argument analysis of the case here.] After his direct appeal, state post-conviction proceedings, and initial efforts at federal habeas relief were all unsuccessful, an execution date was set. In December 2003, Panetti claimed for the first time that he was mentally incompetent to be executed. The procedural machinations that followed his claim are complicated, but in May 2004, the state trial court (relying on evaluations by court-appointed experts) determined that Panetti was in fact competent. The state court then closed the case without ruling on various pending motions and filings by Panetti, including requests for a competency hearing and for funds to hire his own expert.
Panetti returned to federal court, where a second habeas petition was pending. The district court held that although the state court had not complied with either state law or the requirements imposed by the Courtâ€™s 1986 decision in Ford v. Wainright, Panetti was competent as defined by Fifth Circuit precedent insofar as he was aware of the â€œfact of his impending execution and the factual predicate for the execution.â€ The Fifth Circuit affirmed.
Today the Court reversed. It began by rejecting the stateâ€™s argument that the Court lacked jurisdiction to consider the case because Panettiâ€™s first federal habeas petition did not raise a Ford claim. Prohibiting Ford claims not included in a first petition would, the Court explained, prompt all death row inmates to include such claims in their first petition even if the claims were unripe or meritless. Instead, the Court concluded, â€œCongress did not intend the provisions of AEDPA addressing â€˜second or successiveâ€™ petitions to govern a filing in the unusual posture presented here: a [Section] 2254 application raising a Ford-based incompetency claim filed as soon as that claim is ripe.â€ Moreover, it emphasized, â€œ[a]n empty formality requiring prisoners to file unripe Ford claims neither respects the limited resources available to the States nor encourages the exhaustion of state remedies.â€
The Court then disposed of the next argument that, in the stateâ€™s view, would preclude it from reaching the merits of Panettiâ€™s claim: the state courtâ€™s determination that Panetti was competent was entitled to deference under AEDPA. The Court agreed with Panetti that no deference was due because the state court had failed to provide Panetti with the minimum procedures required by Justice Powellâ€™s concurring opinion in Ford â€“ which, the Court explained, constituted â€œclearly established lawâ€ for AEDPA purposes. The Court noted that in Panettiâ€™s case, for example, the state court failed to provide Panetti with even the â€œrudimentary processâ€ of giving him an opportunity to submit psychiatric evidence to rebut the report filed by court-appointed experts. The Court thus left open the question what other due process protections â€“ â€œsuch as the opportunity for discover or for the cross-examination of witnesses â€“ might also be required. And in what may wind up being the most significant part of the Courtâ€™s opinion for prisoners other than Panetti, the Court rejected any notion that the state courtâ€™s application of Ford was necessarily reasonable because the standard outlined in Ford was â€œstated in general termsâ€: â€œAEDPA does not â€˜require state and federal courts to wait for some nearly identical factual pattern before a legal rule must be applied. Nor does AEDPA prohibit a federal court from finding an application of a principle unreasonable when it involves a set of facts â€˜different from those in which the principle was announced.â€™â€
Finally, the Court turned to the merits of Panettiâ€™s Eighth Amendment claim. The Court deemed the Fifth Circuitâ€™s test â€œtoo restrictiveâ€ insofar as it â€œtreats a prisonerâ€™s delusional belief system as irrelevant if the prisoner knows that the State has identified his crimes as the reason for his execution.â€ In the Courtâ€™s view, â€œ[a] prisonerâ€™s awareness of the Stateâ€™s rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it. Ford does not foreclose the latter.â€
While rejecting the Fifth Circuit standard, the Court specifically declined to establish a rule to apply to all competency determinations and, moreover, sent the case back to the district court for it to resolve Panettiâ€™s Ford claim. Lest the case return to it as Panetti II, however, the Court does provide some guidance for the district court on remand â€“ instructing it, for example, that â€œ[e]xpert evidence may clarify the extent to which severe delusions may render a subjectâ€™s perception of reality so distorted that he should be deemed incompetent.â€ And in what could be construed as a very subtle dig at the Fifth Circuit, the Court reminded the lower courts (citing Roper, Atkins, and Ford) that â€œthere is precedent to guide a court conducting Eighth Amendment analysis.â€
In a dissent joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Alito, Justice Thomas begins by explaining that â€œ[t]his case should be simpleâ€ because Panettiâ€™s claim does not meet AEDPAâ€™s â€œsecond or successiveâ€ requirements. In his view, the majority has â€œben[t] over backwardsâ€ to allow Panettiâ€™s claim to proceed. Citing the Courtâ€™s opinion earlier this Term in Burton v. Stewart, Justice Thomas emphasizes that â€œit simply cannot be maintained that Panetti is excused from [Section] 2244â€™s requirements solely because his Ford claim would have been unripe had he included it in his first habeas application.â€ Justice Thomas thus derides the Courtâ€™s opinion today as â€œstand[ing] only for the proposition that Ford claims somehow deserve a special (and unjustified) exemption from [AEDPAâ€™s] plain import.â€
Justice Thomas next explains that he would defer to the state courtâ€™s determination that Panetti was competent to be executed because it was not an unreasonable application of Ford. Justice Thomas dismisses the Courtâ€™s conclusion that Panetti has made a â€œsubstantial threshold showing of insanityâ€ as â€œinsupportableâ€ on the facts, and he further concludes that â€œTexas more than satisfiedâ€ its procedural obligations as outlined by Justice Powellâ€™s concurring opinion.
Finally, although he declines to â€œaddress whether the [Fifth Circuitâ€™s] standard for insanity is substantively correct, Justice Thomas rejects the majorityâ€™s approach as a â€œhalf-baked holding that leaves the details of the insanity standard for the District Court to work out.â€ Justice Thomas in essence accuses the majority of manufacturing its â€œrational understandingâ€ requirement out of whole cloth and without applying the Courtâ€™s own Eighth Amendment analysis â€“ an analysis, he notes, that the â€œCourt likely avoided . . . because there is no evidence to support its position.â€ In conclusion, he contrasts the Fifth Circuitâ€™s approach â€“ which he depicts as â€œbased on what Ford actually saysâ€ and as â€œfar from frivolous or unreasonable â€“ with the majorityâ€™s tactic of â€œsettling upon a preferred outcome without resort to the law,â€ which he describes as â€œforeign to the judicial role as I know it.â€