January 19, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court decision that might change the way the California Supreme Court treats habeas corpus petitions

We noted the concerns of some that the decision in a U.S. Supreme Court case could add to the California Supreme Court’s workload in habeas corpus matters. In Harrington v. Richter, the SCOTUS raised the question whether a CSC summary denial without comment — a silent denial — of a habeas petition should be deferred to by federal courts as a decision on the merits.

An amici curiae brief argued that such deference would cause problems. It argued that “when a [CSC] majority does not agree on a basis for decision, the court simply denies the petition without any citation or explanation at all” and that, “[t]o avoid having the federal courts erroneously treat a silent denial as a merits adjudication, a majority of the justices of the California Supreme Court will have to agree on a basis for decision in each case or specifically explain that a majority could not reach agreement on any single issue . . . . To facilitate this discussion and voting, the court’s criminal central staff will need to recommend a disposition on each separate claim, and the justices will have to vote issue-by-issue.”

Despite these concerns, the SCOTUS today said federal courts should normally give deference to silent denials. The Court concluded, “When a federal claim has been presented to a state court and the state court has denied relief, it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles to the contrary.”

The SCOTUS opinion might not actually add a substantial new burden to the CSC. After all, federal courts will pay deference to a CSC silent denial only “in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles” that the silent denial is not a decision on the merits. The opinion went on to say that “the California courts or Legislature can alter the State’s practices or elaborate more fully on their import.” Thus, for example, a change to the California Rules of Court or even a Supreme Court policy statement that silent denials are not merits decisions could be enough to prevent unwarranted federal deference and thus not significantly alter CSC practice.

Disclosure: The amici curiae brief was filed by the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers. Although no Horvitz & Levy attorneys participated in drafting the amici curiae brief (the brief was authored by Boalt law professors Charles Weisselberg and Nina Rivkind), a number of them are members of the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers and David Ettinger is chair of the Academy’s amicus curiae committee.

One Response to “U.S. Supreme Court decision that might change the way the California Supreme Court treats habeas corpus petitions”

  1. It is highly unlikely that there would be any change to the CSC rules based on Richter. The CSC would naturally want the federal courts to give more deference to their constitutional decisions. I assume they are therefore pleased to have their silent denials be construed as being on the merits. As can be gleaned from their recent Albillar opinion, they tire of having the Ninth Circuit misconstrue California law and unjustly overrule the Calfornia courts’ reasonable constitutional adjudications.

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