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Opinion analysis: New but narrow option for death-row inmates

Opening the federal courthouse door slightly to state death-row inmates whose lawyers sloppily miss a deadline, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a new lawyer ought to be available to take up the cause, even if that is years later.  The Court fell well short of promising that a different lawyer would win a challenge, or even would be allowed to revive the case, but it at least created a chance to try.

The decision, reached by the Court in a summary ruling without briefs or a hearing, featured a strong complaint by two Justices that the Court was tampering with strict limits that Congress had put on state inmates’ access to federal habeas courts.  At least, the dissenters said in the case of Christeson v. Roper, the Court should not have acted until after full-scale review.

Under federal law, a death-row inmate seeking to challenge his conviction or sentence in federal court, after the case becomes final in state court, has a right to a free lawyer if the inmate cannot afford one.   The question for the Court in the Christeson case was whether that right includes an opportunity to get a new lawyer after an inmate’s lawyers abandon him — wholly or at least realistically — and miss the one-year filing deadline for pursuing a federal habeas remedy.  The Court ruled in favor of that opportunity, without settling how it should come out.

The case involves Mark A. Christeson, who was sentenced to death for a triple murder in the small Missouri town of Vichy in 1998, when Christeson was eighteen years old.  He has been described in court papers as having a serious mental disability. Last October, he was hours away from being executed when the Supreme Court blocked the procedure, until it could act on his case.

Earlier, after Christeson failed in challenges in state court, he sought to pursue a federal habeas claim with the aid of two court-appointed lawyers.   According to the record in the case, those attorneys did not even meet with Christeson until six weeks after the deadline for filing his habeas petition.  Those lawyers actually filed the petition 117 days late, and it was dismissed as tardy.  The Court suggested Tuesday that, because of his mental condition, Christeson may not have known about that outcome, partly because it appeared that his lawyers had abandoned him.

Some seven years later, the two lawyers contacted a pair of Pennsylvania attorneys, who agreed to take on the case, and both Christeson and the lawyers who had previously represented him agreed to that arrangement.  The new lawyers decided that the only option was to ask the courts to reopen the case, so that they could argue that the one-year habeas filing deadline should have been suspended as a matter of fairness to Christeson.

Lower federal courts would not allow the substitution of counsel, but the Supreme Court overturned that result on Tuesday.  The unsigned opinion stressed a number of significant obstacles that those lawyers now face as they try to get the case reopened, but nevertheless said Christeson “should have that opportunity, and is entitled to the assistance of substitute counsel in doing so.”

That ruling, although unsigned, appeared to have the support of seven Justices; there was no notation that any of those seven did not take part.  Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., dissented, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.  Arguing that the Court should have granted full review, the dissenters said that the one-year deadline was a strict mandate from Congress, and that whether it should be suspended was “a question of great importance.”

If the one-year deadline can be interrupted anytime an inmate’s lawyers misses the one-year filing deadline, Justice Alito wrote, the deadline would be “of little value, and the days of seemingly interminable federal habeas review would return.”

In another criminal law case, the Justices refused to clarify — over the dissent of Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia — when a criminal sentence should be overturned if a judge decides to impose a more severe sentence after the individual involved wins a new trial.  The dissenters argued, in the case of Plumley v. Austin, that “confusion reigns” among federal appeals courts on that issue.

These actions came as the Court issued a series of orders denying review of a host of new cases.  Here are some of the issues that the Justices chose to pass up:

** Whether the courts have any authority to examine what a child victim of sex abuse had said during a private confession session with a priest.  That was the issue in Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge v. Manyeux.

** Whether the Federal Reserve Board of Governors failed to follow Congress’s bar to banks recovering any part of their own costs when they charge store merchants a fee for processing purchases made with debit cards.  The Court turned aside that issue in NACS v. Board of Governors, Federal Reserve System.

** Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was wrong in reviving a lawsuit by a Connecticut woman who is seeking to reclaim ownership of two famous sixteenth-century paintings of Adam and Eve — art allegedly stolen by the Nazis during World War II from the woman’s family art dealership in The Netherlands.  The paintings are now in a museum in Pasadena.  The case was Norton Simon Museum v. von Saher.

The full order list is here.

[Disclosure: Goldstein & Russell, P.C., whose attorneys contribute to this blog in various capacities, is among the counsel to NACS and Christeson. The author of this post is not affiliated with the law firm.]



Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion analysis: New but narrow option for death-row inmates, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 20, 2015, 4:44 PM),