on Apr 3, 2015 at 10:48 am
John Elwood reviews Monday’s relisted cases.
Well readers, it’s been a long, hard winter, but the end is finally in sight: In our office, we’ve finally stopped burning deposition transcripts for warmth, and our summer associate softball uniforms were recently revised to drop the overcoat. (The hat will keep the earflaps; It’s not like us to be rash.) With temperatures inching out of the zone experienced only in deep space, your loyal correspondents are going to have to mine some other bewildering natural phenomenon for things to talk about in our inevitably contrived Relist Watch introductory ’graph. Ideas welcome. While you’re noodling that, let’s talk relists.
This was a week of spring cleaning: The Court got rid of everything — yes, everything — that has been hanging around. For petitioners in two of last week’s relisted cases, the paschal lagomorph arrived early. In Grady v. North Carolina, 14-593, a North Carolina trial court ordered the petitioner to wear a GPS monitoring bracelet for life, based on his status as a recidivist sex offender and without finding that he posed a societal threat. The state intermediate appellate court rejected the claim that the monitoring bracelet amounted to a Fourth Amendment “search.” The Court relisted the case twice and then issued this remarkably speedy per curiam opinion, granting the petition and vacating the lower court’s judgment. Citing its recent opinions in United States v. Jones (holding that installation of a car-tracking device was a “search”) and Florida v. Jardines (holding that having a dog “nose around” – a play on words by the Chief Justice, perhaps? — a suspect’s front porch was a “search”), the Court explained that “it follows that a State also conducts a search when it attaches a device to a person’s body, without consent, for the purpose of tracking that individual’s movements.” However, because the Fourth Amendment only prohibits unreasonable searches, the Court remanded the case for a “reasonableness” determination. Summary decisions are supposed to be reserved for issues that are clear beyond peradventure; this strikes me as the summary decision that makes the most law since (Not Elvis) Presley v. Georgia, delivered during the similarly craptacular winter of 2009-10. Congratulations to the pro bono lawyer who made this long-odds win happen.
The petitioner in Woods v. Donald, 14-618, a thrice-relisted state-on-top habeas case, likewise went home with an early Easter egg in his basket. There, counsel for the respondent was absent during testimony about phone calls made between the respondent’s co-defendants — a fact that the respondent later claimed entitled him to a new trial on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel. The Michigan courts rejected this argument; but a federal trial court later granted habeas relief. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that, under United States v. Cronic, the defendant was denied counsel at a “critical stage of his trial,” constituting per se ineffective assistance and entitling him to habeas relief. The Supreme Court summarily reversed in an opinion that identified the court of appeals by name a dozen times. “Under [the federal habeas statute], a federal court may grant habeas relief only when a state court’s decision on the merits was ‘contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by’ decisions from this Court . . . .” “We have never addressed whether the rule announced in Cronic applies to testimony regarding codefendants’ actions.” Thus, “[b]ecause none of our cases confront ‘the specific situation presented by this case,’ the state court’s decision could not be ‘contrary to’ any holding from this Court.” The Court continued: “Just last Term, we warned the Sixth Circuit that ‘where the precise contours of a right remain unclear, state courts enjoy broad discretion in their adjudication of a prisoner’s claims.’ . . . All that matters here, and all that should have mattered to the Sixth Circuit, is that we have not held that Cronic applies to the circumstances presented in this case.” Got it.
Our next bit of hopeful news comes from a legal specialty not generally associated with “hope.” Montanile v. Board of Trustee of the National Elevator Industry Health Benefit Plan, 14-723, is an ERISA case in which, unusually, both sides urged the Court to grant review. Loath to rebuff the rare opportunity to please everyone — and unwilling to risk reading the pleadings — the Court granted the parties’ collective wish, and will now consider whether [deep breath] a lawsuit by an ERISA fiduciary against a participant to recover an alleged overpayment by the plan seeks “equitable relief” within the meaning of ERISA Section 502(a)(3), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3), if the fiduciary has not identified a particular fund that is in the participant’s possession and control at the time the fiduciary asserts its claim.
Moving on to greener flatter pastures, the Court also granted cert. in three Kansas cases. Kansas v. Gleason, 14-452 (five relists), Kansas v. Carr, 14-449 (one relist), and Kansas v. Carr, 14-450 (ditto) all present a common question: whether the Eighth Amendment requires that a capital-sentencing jury be affirmatively instructed that mitigating circumstances “need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” or whether the Eighth Amendment is satisfied by instructions that, in context, make clear that each juror must individually assess and weigh any mitigating circumstances. The Carr cases, which were consolidated on Monday, also raise an additional question: whether the trial court’s decision not to sever the sentencing phase of the co-defendant brothers’ trial violated an Eighth Amendment right to an “individualized sentencing” determination and the error was not harmless.
Sadly, it wasn’t all roses for last week’s Kansas relists. Carr v. Kansas, 14-6810 — the cross-petition to Carr (14-450), asking whether a jury view is a critical stage of a criminal prosecution requiring the presence of the defendant and the assistance of counsel — was denied on Monday after one relist and a pair of reschedules. As for the other Carr v. Kansas, 14-7327 — the cross-petition to Carr (14-449), asking whether the retroactive elimination of felony murder as a lesser-included offense of capital murder violates the Ex Post Facto Clause and the Eighth Amendment — it was likewise denied this week after a solitary relist. Happily, the resolution of this gnarl of Kansas relists keeps me from having to keep them all straight. And three outta five ain’t bad.
Two more of last week’s relists bought the farm on Monday. You’d think four relists would get you something — a dissent from denial, a set of jelly jars, something’. But the Court denied Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, 14-354, in which the petitioner pressed a First Amendment challenge to the Board’s policy excluding groups engaging in religious worship from using public school buildings after hours. It was likewise curtains for Nelson v. Wisconsin, 14-555, (two relists), which sought an answer to whether a trial court’s complete denial of a criminal defendant’s constitutional right to testify is amenable to harmless-error analysis.
The Court’s long-overdue spring cleaning reset the Court’s relist docket, leaving us with no repeat relists this week. In the new relist hopper, we’ve got one lonesome entry. The petitioner in Larkin v. Florida, 14-7884, was indicted for, and convicted of, bludgeoning his septuagenarian parents to death in their Amelia Island home in 2009. After a public defender was initially appointed, the petitioner sought to represent himself — which the court allowed, reappointing the public defender as “stand-by counsel.” Two days after the jury returned with a guilty verdict, stand-by counsel notified the court that the petitioner appeared to suffer from a delusional disorder and was incompetent to proceed with the trial’s penalty phase. The court ultimately ordered three mental health evaluations of the petitioner, undertaken by three different doctors, one of whom found the petitioner incompetent, and the other two coming to the opposite conclusion. Throughout the competency proceedings, the petitioner continued to act as his own attorney. Based on the two latter competency reports, the court found petitioner competent to proceed to the trial’s penalty phase where the jury unanimously sentenced him to death. On cert., the petitioner asks whether the Florida Supreme Court violated clearly established law by allowing a trial court that has expressly found reasonable doubt regarding the defendant’s competency to allow the defendant to represent himself at his own competency hearing.
That’s it from us. We’ll be back next week to report on the orders from the Court’s Good Friday Conference. Until then, here’s a little scratch for you spring chickens.
Thanks to Ralph Mayrell and Conor McEvily for compiling and drafting this update.
[page]14-7884[/page] (relisted after the March 27 Conference)