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Opinion Recap: US v. Denedo

Former clinic student and recent Stanford Law School graduate Josh Friedman discusses Monday’s decision in US v. Denedo.

By a vote of five to four, the Court held that both the Navy-Marine Court of Criminal Appeals (NMCCA) and Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) had jurisdiction to review respondent Jacob Denedo’s petition for a writ of error coram nobis.

The Court unanimously agreed that it possessed jurisdiction to hear the government’s appeal of the CAAF’s decision. The Court reasoned that the CAAF’s opinion constituted clear “relief” for the purposes of a proper appeal before the Supreme Court as authorized by 18 U.S.C. § 1259(4).

The Justices disagreed, however, about the proper disposition of Mr. Denedo’s petition. A five-Justice majority, in an opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, held that military courts have jurisdiction to entertain a petition for a writ of coram nobis. The majority reasoned that because the NMCCA had statutory subject-matter jurisdiction over appeals stemming from Mr. Denedo’s original court-martial conviction, the court also could hear a coram nobis appeal, because under United States v. Morgan such an appeal is “simply a further ‘step in [Mr. Denedo’s] criminal’ appeal.” Furthermore, the CAAF possessed jurisdiction over any appeal from an NMCCA decision regarding a writ of coram nobis. The Court explained that such an appeal would address the lower court’s finding of a “matter of law,” which the CAAF is statutorily authorized to review. Therefore, and emphasizing that their opinion did not prejudge the merits of Mr. Denedo’s claim, the majority affirmed the decision of the CAAF below and remanded the case for further proceedings on the merits of Mr. Denedo’s petition.

Four Justices dissented. In an opinion authored by the Chief Justice, the dissenters argued that a petition for coram nobis is by its nature an appeal for postconviction review outside the “‘narrowly circumscribed’ statutory jurisdiction” of military courts recognized by the Supreme Court in Clinton v. Goldsmith. Critically, the dissenters disagreed that coram nobis can be understood as an extension of the military courts’ original jurisdiction and instead concluded that the writ fell outside any congressionally prescribed jurisdiction.