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Opinion Recap: Bobby v. Bies

Stanford student Martine Cicconi summarizes Monday’s opinion in Bobby v. Bies. Filings in the case are available at SCOTUSWiki here.

On Monday, the Court released its opinion in Bobby v. Bies, unanimously reversing the Sixth Circuit’s decision in favor of the criminal defendant. At issue in the case was whether double jeopardy barred Ohio from holding a hearing to determine the mental competency of an inmate sentenced to death before Atkins v. Virginia when the state supreme court had previously recognized the inmate’s “borderline mental retardation.”

Writing for the Court, Justice Ginsburg quickly disposed of each of the rationales advanced by the Sixth Circuit in its opinion and denial of rehearing en banc. She began with Judge Clay’s opinion concurring in the denial of rehearing, in which he reasoned that Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania provided an adequate basis for affirming the district court’s decision to grant habeas relief by holding that “jeopardy attaches, and relitigation is precluded, once a judge or jury has ‘acquitted’ a criminal defendant by entering findings sufficient to establish legal entitlement to a life sentence.” In Bies’s case, he continued, the Ohio court’s conclusion that Bies was mentally retarded entitled him to a life sentence, triggered double jeopardy, and precluded the state from later disputing the claim.

In the Court’s opinion, this reasoning was unpersuasive and required “little explanation” for its rejection. “The touchstone for double jeopardy in capital-sentencing proceedings is whether there has been an acquittal,” Justice Ginsburg emphasized. Because a jury sentenced Bies to death, he was never acquitted. Moreover, the state made no attempt to convict or sentence Bies a second time – the case arose not from successive prosecutions, but from the defendant’s “second run at vacating his death sentence.”

In addition, the state court’s determinations regarding Bies’s mental competency did not “entitle” him to a life sentence. Because Atkins had not been decided when the state court reviewed Bies’s sentence, that court assessed only whether his limited mental capacity mitigated responsibility for his crime.

Justice Ginsburg then turned to the foundation of the Sixth Circuit’s decision – the issue preclusion doctrine recognized in Ashe v. Swenson. Issue preclusion, she began, applies when an issue of fact or law is actually litigated and determined by a valid and final judgment that is essential to the disposition of the case. The state court’s offhanded comments regarding Bies’s mental retardation fulfilled none of these elements. To start, Justice Ginsburg noted, it was not clear whether the issue was actually decided by the state courts. The standard established after Atkins to determine retardation was not in place at the time of Bies’s trial and direct appeal, and nothing in the record indicated that the state courts made the findings necessary to comply with that standard. The court did not, for example, determine whether Bies suffered “significant limitations in two or more adaptive skills.” More fundamentally, Justice Ginsburg argued, the conclusions regarding Bies’s mental capacity were not necessary to the imposition of his death sentence; if anything, they cut against that determination.

At this point, the Court took issue with the reasoning underlying the Sixth Circuit’s decision. By weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, the Sixth Circuit had concluded, the state court must have made an adequate determination of Bies’s mental retardation – otherwise, how would the court have decided “what to place on either side of the scale”? Justice Ginsburg soundly rejected this reasoning, finding that the Sixth Circuit “conflate[ed] a determination necessary to the bottom-line judgment with a subsidiary finding that, standing alone, is not outcome determinative.” “Issue preclusion,” she concluded, “does not transform final judgment losers into partially prevailing parties.” Bies’s case “d[id] not involve an ‘ultimate fact’ of the kind Ashe addressed.” Unlike in Ashe, the determinations at issue in Bies’s case did not trigger an acquittal, nor were they necessary to the ultimate disposition of the case.

Even if the core requirements of the doctrine had been met, the Court reasoned, the intervening Atkins decisions would warrant an exception to the application of issue preclusion. Before Atkins, a finding of mental retardation could be a double-edged sword in capital sentencing, leaving prosecutors little reason to contest a defendant’s claim. “Because the change in law substantially altered the State’s incentive to contest Bies’s mental capacity, applying preclusion would not advance the equitable administration of the law.”

Finally, the Court noted that the Sixth Circuit’s decision derailed the state’s effort to determine the strength of Bies’s Atkins claim. Because recourse to the state courts is precisely what the Court envisioned when it remitted to the states responsibility for implementing Atkins, the Sixth Circuit’s intervention was inappropriate. The state, the Court concluded, rightly deserved a full and fair opportunity to contest Bies’s claims.

Cases: Bobby v. Bies