July 26, 2016
U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judges Jay S. Bybee, a George W. Bush appointee, and Stephen Reinhardt, who was elevated to the court by President Carter, expressed their frustrations in a ruling that will allow a state prisoner to challenge his detention in federal court.
The case dealt with legal deadlines, and the 11-judge appellate panel found itself having to surmise why the California Supreme Court had rejected the habeas corpus filing — the legal means by which inmates can win their freedom.
Bybee complained that communication between the two courts “has devolved into a series of hints that the California Supreme Court obliquely telegraphs and that we struggle to decipher.”
Yet the 9th Circuit’s difficulties “pale in comparison to the costs that the California Supreme Court’s imprecision imposes on its own citizens and state government, because they have no more clue what the California Supreme Court means than we do,” Bybee said.
Overwhelmed by thousands of challenges from inmates each year, the state Supreme Court decides most of them with one-paragraph summary rulings that frustrate federal judges who later are asked to review them.
In Monday’s case, the 9th Circuit was examining the California high court’s rejection of a challenge by Freddy Curiel, who was sentenced to life without parole for murder. If the state court had found the rejection was due to a missed legal deadline, the federal judges would have to dismiss the inmate’s challenge.
The 2010 order said in its entirety: “The petition for writ of habeas corpus is denied. (See In re Swain (1949) 34 Cal.2d 300, 304; People v. Duvall (1995) 9 Cal.4th 464, 474.).”
Ninth Circuit Judge Mary H. Murguia, who wrote Monday’s majority opinion, said the appellate court had determined that the state justices did not find Curiel’s challenge untimely because neither of the two cases they cited had to do with deadlines.
Reinhardt said in his concurrence that he understood the California high court was overwhelmed with work and strained financially and could not write full-blown rulings on every case. But he implored the court to provide more elucidation and suggested specific reforms.
“Perhaps what was not so long ago the most innovative court in the nation will once again be able to provide national leadership when it considers the problem of the untold numbers of habeas petitions raising substantial claims of federal constitutional violations,” he wrote.
“Without a new approach,” he said, “even clearly erroneous constitutional decisions of state courts will remain uncorrected and leave defendants without the check on constitutional error that until recently the federal courts provided.”
Monday’s complaints about the California Supreme Court’s practice of denying habeas challenges — known as “postcard” denials — have been raised many times throughout the years by 9th Circuit judges.
But Reinhardt and Bybee noted that the issue was now more important than ever, because recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court require federal courts to defer to state judges except in extremely limited circumstances.
“Until we can tell what the California Supreme Court has decided,” Bybee wrote, “we won’t know how to afford California the deference to which it is entitled.”...