Breaking News

The much-discussed Ryan v. Hurles returns, expanded

The Supreme Court labored over some major rulings at its last Term, but perhaps no harder on any one of them than on a case it did not actually decide.  For twenty-three straight private sessions, from before the Term opened to shortly before it ended, the Court had before it the Arizona murder case of Ryan v. Hurles.  Dismissed then for a procedural reason, it has returned — in an expanded form.

No one outside the Court has any idea what had stymied the Court — if, indeed, it was stymied by this case — throughout the Term.  The case then turned on the single issue of whether a state court conviction could be open to a challenge in a federal court solely because the state court had not held a hearing to weigh evidence on a key legal point.  In the new version, state lawyers have added a second issue, on the performance of a defense lawyer during a state court appeal.

The case involves Richard Dean Hurles of Phoenix, who was sentenced to death for the brutal stabbing murder and attempted rape of a woman working in a public library in the small town of Buckeye, Arizona, in November 1992.   The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled several times on the case — indeed, its latest ruling on the case was issued after the Supreme Court had pondered repeatedly an earlier version.

Two days after that new Ninth Circuit ruling in mid-May, Arizona officials, conceding that their pending petition had become moot, asked the Court to dismiss the case so that the state could file a new petition.  The case ended in the Supreme Court on June 3 — without an opinion, and still with no sign of what had prevented action on it.  Indeed, the Court had not even granted review.

The case as it unfolded last Term focused upon a Maricopa County Superior Court judge, Ruth H. Hilliard of Phoenix.  She had presided over several aspects of the Hurles case, including a pretrial issue, the trial itself, and sentencing.  After the case went through Arizona state courts, the Ninth Circuit ruled that a federal judge must hold a hearing to gather evidence on Hurles’s claim that Judge Hilliard was biased against him.

She had herself turned down his bias claim, after the trial was over, and rejected it without gathering any new evidence, relying instead on her own recollections.   In its earlier decision, the Ninth Circuit said that failure was enough to give Hurles at least some legal relief — a new review by a federal judge of his judicial bias claim.  It did not then explicitly overturn his conviction and death sentence.

When the Ninth Circuit withdrew that ruling and issued a new decision in May, it went further, and added another reason for allowing Hurles to pursue a challenge before a federal district judge.  That new issue dealt with the performance of his defense ttorney at the appeals stage of his case in state courts.

The question the judge was told to examine was whether Hurles was entitled to a brain scan that could show damage that would add to his claim of insanity — the only defense he had at the trial — and that his lawyer had failed to seek such a test.   That new decision came after the Ninth Circuit had withdrawn the opinion that was even then being examined by the Supreme Court.

The state’s new petition, filed last week (docketed as 14-191), raised anew the question that was its only issue in the earlier petition, dealing with the federal court review of Judge Hilliard’s handling of the judicial bias claim.

On that point, the state’s lawyers argued that the Ninth Circuit ruling “threatens to adversely affect the justice system by calling into question the manner in which many judges resolve recusal requests” and gives state prisoners challenging their convictions in federal habeas court a way to get around federal courts’ duty to defer to state courts.

The question newly added in the petition is a sequel to the Court’s ruling two years ago in the case of Martinez v. Ryan.  There, the Court had given individuals an expanded right, in habeas cases, to challenge the effectiveness of their defense lawyers even if they had failed to raise that issue previously in state court.

That right, the new petition argued, was intended by the Court to apply only to claims of a defense lawyer’s failure to raise an issue at the trial, when state prisoners are making a habeas challenge after their conviction had become final.  Every other court of appeals, the state’s lawyers argued, has interpreted the Martinez ruling to apply only to defaults in trial practice by defense counsel, but the Ninth Circuit broke ranks and applied it also to a new review of a defaulted claim of ineffective lawyering at the appeals level.

That, the petition argued, “will effectively open the floodgates to the merits review” of legal issues that had been “procedurally defaulted” and will lead to a weakening of federal habeas law’s requirement that state prisoners first exhaust their legal claims in state court, before pursuing habeas relief.

Lawyers for Hurles will have a chance to respond to the new petition before the Court acts on it.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, The much-discussed Ryan v. Hurles returns, expanded, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 20, 2014, 12:07 AM),