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Today’s Opinion in Panetti v. Quarterman

By a vote of five to four, the Court today reversed the Fifth Circuit’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 “stop him from preaching.” 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 Panetti’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 isn’t clear what the long-term precedential effects of the Court’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 court’s application of a general legal principle “unreasonable” 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 Lyle’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 Court’s 1986 decision in Ford v. Wainright, Panetti was competent as defined by Fifth Circuit precedent insofar as he was aware of the “fact of his impending execution and the factual predicate for the execution.” The Fifth Circuit affirmed.

Today the Court reversed. It began by rejecting the state’s argument that the Court lacked jurisdiction to consider the case because Panetti’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, “Congress did not intend the provisions of AEDPA addressing ‘second or successive’ 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.” Moreover, it emphasized, “[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.”

The Court then disposed of the next argument that, in the state’s view, would preclude it from reaching the merits of Panetti’s claim: the state court’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 Powell’s concurring opinion in Ford – which, the Court explained, constituted “clearly established law” for AEDPA purposes. The Court noted that in Panetti’s case, for example, the state court failed to provide Panetti with even the “rudimentary process” 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 – “such as the opportunity for discover or for the cross-examination of witnesses – might also be required. And in what may wind up being the most significant part of the Court’s opinion for prisoners other than Panetti, the Court rejected any notion that the state court’s application of Ford was necessarily reasonable because the standard outlined in Ford was “stated in general terms”: “AEDPA does not ‘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 ‘different from those in which the principle was announced.’”

Finally, the Court turned to the merits of Panetti’s Eighth Amendment claim. The Court deemed the Fifth Circuit’s test “too restrictive” insofar as it “treats a prisoner’s delusional belief system as irrelevant if the prisoner knows that the State has identified his crimes as the reason for his execution.” In the Court’s view, “[a] prisoner’s awareness of the State’s rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it. Ford does not foreclose the latter.”

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 Panetti’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 – instructing it, for example, that “[e]xpert evidence may clarify the extent to which severe delusions may render a subject’s perception of reality so distorted that he should be deemed incompetent.” 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 “there is precedent to guide a court conducting Eighth Amendment analysis.”

In a dissent joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Alito, Justice Thomas begins by explaining that “[t]his case should be simple” because Panetti’s claim does not meet AEDPA’s “second or successive” requirements. In his view, the majority has “ben[t] over backwards” to allow Panetti’s claim to proceed. Citing the Court’s opinion earlier this Term in Burton v. Stewart, Justice Thomas emphasizes that “it simply cannot be maintained that Panetti is excused from [Section] 2244’s requirements solely because his Ford claim would have been unripe had he included it in his first habeas application.” Justice Thomas thus derides the Court’s opinion today as “stand[ing] only for the proposition that Ford claims somehow deserve a special (and unjustified) exemption from [AEDPA’s] plain import.”

Justice Thomas next explains that he would defer to the state court’s determination that Panetti was competent to be executed because it was not an unreasonable application of Ford. Justice Thomas dismisses the Court’s conclusion that Panetti has made a “substantial threshold showing of insanity” as “insupportable” on the facts, and he further concludes that “Texas more than satisfied” its procedural obligations as outlined by Justice Powell’s concurring opinion.

Finally, although he declines to “address whether the [Fifth Circuit’s] standard for insanity is substantively correct, Justice Thomas rejects the majority’s approach as a “half-baked holding that leaves the details of the insanity standard for the District Court to work out.” Justice Thomas in essence accuses the majority of manufacturing its “rational understanding” requirement out of whole cloth and without applying the Court’s own Eighth Amendment analysis – an analysis, he notes, that the “Court likely avoided . . . because there is no evidence to support its position.” In conclusion, he contrasts the Fifth Circuit’s approach – which he depicts as “based on what Ford actually says” and as “far from frivolous or unreasonable – with the majority’s tactic of “settling upon a preferred outcome without resort to the law,” which he describes as “foreign to the judicial role as I know it.”