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October 11, 2005

First opinion of Roberts Court is a win for a criminal defendant! On habeas!

Thanks to a tip from my colleague, I discovered that the very first official opinion from the Roberts Court was handed down today in Dye v. Hofbauer, No. 04-8384 (S. Ct. Oct. 11, 2005) (available here). Criminal defendants will surely hope this decision is a sign of things to come: in Dye, the Supreme Court in a brief per curiam opinion grants review and summarily reverses a Sixth Circuit panel decision to deny habeas relief and thereby reinstates the federal habeas petition of a Michigan man convicted of murder in state court.

The procedural particulars of Dye are complicated, but this summary reversal ultimately reveals some real ugliness in the way the Sixth Circuit handled this habeas petition (and perhaps others) .  Dye also raises interesting questions about Chief Judge Roberts' involvement in the decision.  My (uniformed) guess is that the decision in Dye might have been (tentatively) reached in a conference led by Justice Stevens before CJ Roberts officially joined the Court last Monday.  But, notably, the per curiam Dye opinion does not have any notation indicating that the Chief did not participate. 

So, when playing the "law nerd" version of Trivial Pursuit, remember that the question "Who prevailed in the first written decision of the Roberts Court?," should be answered "convicted murderer Paul Allen Dye."

FOLLOW-UP:  I received an interesting e-mail which, based on the docket sheet entries in Dye, had this to say about my speculation about who was involved in the decision-making in this case:

Your blog speculates that the decision to reverse summarily in Dye v. Hofbauer was first reached at a conference presided over by Justice Stevens.  It is actually more likely that the decision to reverse summarily was tentatively reached at a conference presided over by Chief Justice Rehnquist on June 16, 2005, and firmed up over the summer after the Court received the full record June 23, 2005, and July 12, 2005 (with the author of the per curiam opinion -- which stylistic cues suggest may have been Justice Kennedy -- drafting over the summer). It is certainly the case that Chief Justice Roberts signed onto the opinion after the vast majority of the Court's consideration was already complete.

October 11, 2005 at 04:43 PM | Permalink

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» U.S. Supreme Court Opinion on Habeas Corpus Case from Objective Justice
[Update: Professor Berman has also posted about this case at Sentencing Law and Policy. He informs us that this is indeed the first case handed down by the Roberts Court. He also seems to be just as impressed with the 6th Circuit's opinion as I. He add... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 11, 2005 7:07:31 PM

» Chief Justice Roberts for the Defense from TalkLeft: The Politics of Crime
Great news. In the first opinion issued by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court ruled for the defendant in a murder case. Law Prof Doug Berman at Sentencing Law and Policy has the details. Berman quips:... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 11, 2005 8:19:34 PM

» Chief Justice Roberts for the Defense from TalkLeft: The Politics of Crime
Great news. In the first opinion issued by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court ruled for the defendant in a murder case. Law Prof Doug Berman at Sentencing Law and Policy has the details. Berman quips:... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 11, 2005 8:22:11 PM

Comments

A brief review of the opinion makes it pretty clear why cert was granted. It is very rare that the Circuit Court of Appeals will first render an opinion holding that the prosecutor engaged in flagrant misconduct, and then reverse itself in that very case with different judges and come to the opposite conclusion.

Even worse than the purely legal points made in the opinion is the inaccuracy of fact in the second opinion from the 6th Circuit. It said that the critical brief upon whose absence its ruling was based was absent from the record. The Supreme Court found that this brief was in the record and quoted from it.

Had the 6th Circuit not flip flopped would the Court have looked closely enough at the cert petition to catch such blatant carelessness in a case where life or death is at stake?

Posted by: ohwilleke | Oct 11, 2005 9:24:53 PM

I don't think the Supremes deliver this sort of "bench slap" unless they are trying to send a message to the lower courts (or at least to this particular lower court), beyond the case at hand, that they do not approve of their way of handling these cases -- that they want capital habeas cases to be taken more seriously. It's the same message they sent the Fifth Circuit in the Miller-El case over the last two years.

Posted by: Peter G | Oct 11, 2005 11:29:08 PM

Michigan does not have the death penalty - this was not a capital case.

Posted by: Anonymous Clerk | Oct 12, 2005 7:29:44 AM

Thanks for the correction about Michigan, A.C. Nevertheless, a message about habeas corpus cases today is (perhaps unfortunately) in reality mostly a message about the death penalty. At the same time, the casual, back-of-the-hand treatment that non-capital habeas cases receive from even the most (otherwise) conscientious federal courts is even more shameful than is seen in capital cases. I'd like to think that this Dye opinion is indeed a message on that subject, but somehow I doubt it will be taken that way, at least not taken to heart.

Posted by: Peter G | Oct 12, 2005 11:57:53 AM

I think Dye's cert petition must have been extraordinarily well crafted. Naturally, all cert petitions include an assertion of error, but the Court does not routinely take cases for that reason alone. Dye's counsel must have done a very good job of pointing out that the error here was unusually blatant.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Oct 12, 2005 12:51:09 PM

Uhhhh.....can someone explain this in layman's terms? Without using the word habeas? Thanks.

Posted by: GaryO | Oct 13, 2005 9:05:16 AM

A Writ of Habeas Corpus is a latin term which roughly means an "order to have the body produced". It means that the person who has custody of the body of the person in question must bring him to the court to see if he can legally be held away from the person or organization seeking the body.

In modern day terms it is usually (though not always) meant to order to the state to defend why it should be allowed to hold or punish someone. It is how a case goes from the state system to the federal system. It must question a ruling or decision that has federal constitutional issues that the prisoner (or convict) is challenging.

Posted by: That Lawyer Dude | Oct 13, 2005 8:29:31 PM

Okay - forgive me if I'm being dense. But I want to understand this. If I do understand, then, in this case the defendant was prosecuted in Michigan but wants his case heard in federal court in the hopes of having his death sentenced overturned? Am I close? (I was linked here from a non-legal site and, obviously, don't have any background in law. Still, what I do understand of all this is somewhat fascinating.)

Thanks for your patience.

Posted by: Gary-O | Oct 14, 2005 9:01:06 AM

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Posted by: | Oct 14, 2008 9:39:56 PM

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