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January 20, 2015

SCOTUS rules in favor of prisoner's RLUIPA claim and capital defendant's AEDPA contention

The Supreme Court handed down a few opinions this morning, and two of them involve notable victories for criminal defendants (and notable reversals of the Eighth Circuit).  

Via a unanimous ruling in Holt v. Hobbs, No. 13- 6827 (S. Ct. Jan 20, 2015) (available here), the Court explains why a rigid prison beard policy wrongfully infringes religious rights. Here is how the opinion, per Justice Alito, gets started:

Petitioner Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, is an Arkansas inmate and a devout Muslim who wishes to grow a 1⁄2-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Petitioner’s objection to shaving his beard clashes with the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy, which prohibits inmates from growing beards unless they have a particular dermatological condition. We hold that the Department’s policy, as applied in this case, violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 114 Stat. 803, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq., which prohibits a state or local government from taking any action that substantially burdens the religious exercise of an institutionalized person unless the government demonstrates that the action constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.

We conclude in this case that the Department’s policy substantially burdens petitioner’s religious exercise.  Although we do not question the importance of the Department’s interests in stopping the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification, we do doubt whether the prohibition against petitioner’s beard furthers its compelling interest about contraband.  And we conclude that the Department has failed to show that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests.  We thus reverse the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Via a summary reversal in Christeson v. Roper, No. 14-6873 (S. Ct. Jan 20, 2015) (available here), the Court explains why lower federal courts were too quick to preclude a capital defendant from arguing a habeas deadline ought to be tolled.  Here is how the Court's per curiam decision gets started:  

Petitioner Mark Christeson’s first federal habeas petition was dismissed as untimely. Because his appointed attorneys — who had missed the filing deadline — could not be expected to argue that Christeson was entitled to the equitable tolling of the statute of limitations, Christeson requested substitute counsel who would not be laboring under a conflict of interest.  The District Court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit summarily affirmed. In so doing, these courts contravened our decision in Martel v. Clair, 565 U. S. ___ (2012).  Christeson’s petition for certiorari is therefore granted, the judgment of the Eighth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

Notably, in Holt, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor concurred in a little separate opinion to provide a bit of their own spin on RLUIPA.  And in Christeson, Justices Alito and Thomas dissent from the summary reversal because they would have preferred full briefing concerning a "question of great importance" regarding "the availability of equitable tolling in cases governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)."

January 20, 2015 at 10:43 AM | Permalink


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I agree with Alito and Thomas that Christeson’s petition should not have been granted without full argument and a complete opinion. That being said I do think Christeson has a very good argument for complete abandonment and that the habeas lawyer's meeting with him and filing months late may well have been an attempt to cover their own butts rather than an honest mistake as they claim.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jan 20, 2015 10:52:40 AM

Note as well how Alito tossed in a footnote name checking Breyer & Stevens, noting AEDPA in part addresses their concerns about delays in capital cases. Mixture of issues there guys, but you know, I see what you did. Might be a bit of snark too.

Rick Hasen listening? http://www.mediaite.com/online/study-ranks-antonin-scalia-as-most-sarcastic-scotus-justice/

Posted by: Joe | Jan 20, 2015 12:03:47 PM

Starting with Holt, I think everyone is going to read the case carefully, in light of Hobby Lobby, to see how it could be used in RFRA and RLUIPA cases in the future. First, I'll note, the Court emphasized first that sincerity of the religious belief is a requirement, citing to a footnote in Hobby Lobby (the failure of the Court in Hobby Lobby to address it in the body of the opinion led a lot of people, imo, to conclude the Court was no longer requiring it. I think it's more accurate to say that the government there had abandoned it as a line of argument and more or less conceded sincerity). Second, this case made no attempt to suggest the standard adopted in RFRA and RLUIPA is stricter than the standard in Sherbert.

As for the other case. I think there's a clear case for either Strickland or Cronic. I also think the caselaw is firmly on the side of substitution of counsel. I'm really not sure what briefing would add on those points. Justice Alito's contention seems to be that the petitioner might not obtain equitable tolling. That may be true, but that doesn't mean it isn't appropriate to have conflict-free counsel to make that argument. And responding with "his original counsel says" certainly isn't helping. If one could take them at their word, there would be no worry over a conflict of interest. I'm not a fan of per curiam opinions, but it seems like a case like this, which doesn't really create any new rules and seems only to apply them in well-settled areas, is a good candidate for one.

Posted by: Erik M | Jan 20, 2015 4:53:30 PM


What I see briefing answering is whether conflict free counsel is actually a right after having the attempt being abandoned for many years.

At least As I read the PC opinion, he tried for conflict free counsel in 2005 and was finally rebuffed on that in 2007; and only tried again in 2014.

I could well see conflict-free counsel having been a right during the earlier proceeding but I could also see the delay making that moot as a matter of law, and I believe that a full hearing should have been held to answer the question regarding the difference between the two.. He was on notice that there was a conflict issue, he was on notice that the issue was critical to his only hope of relief and chose to do nothing (ignoring the claim that his mental facilities are such that he is not capable of making any such choice at all).

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jan 20, 2015 9:19:51 PM

Soronel & Erik, I think you both have it completely wrong. Since the alleged attorney errors happened on federal habeas, ineffective rep (as a Sixth Amendment issue) is out the window--if for no other reason than the deficiencies cannot be charged to the State of Missouri. Second, so what if this clown had the federal statutory right to substitution of counsel on his post-habeas judgment filings? How does that federal statutory right operate to stay the execution of the criminal judgment since there was no showing that Missouri had violated the defendant's rights? And while we're talking about federal statutory rights, what of the victims' rights statute? Surely, since the argument is that the habeas judgment is voidable, the federal habeas proceedings would be well into their 8th year, which would violate the victims' rights statute.

Other than innocence claims, the federal courts have an obligation to get post-judgment habeas motions done before the execution date. No other rule makes any sense. Missouri didn't do anything wrong here, and its execution date, set in accordance with its laws deserved far more respect than it received from the lawless Supreme Court, which, yet again, has shown itself to be utterly irresponsible.

The victims' family have every right to despise the Members of the Court that imposed a lawless stay and have now subjected them to more pain. Utterly contemptible.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 21, 2015 1:12:39 AM

I'm not an expert on AEDPA, but it doesn't seem to me that equitable tolling has anything to do with whether it is the fault of Missouri. It's whether or not there was fault at the hands of the defendant or whether the deficiencies warrant excusing the untimely filing. Even if federal courts have an obligation to do something, it doesn't make sense that the blame for failure to do so falls on the defendant.

Of course, had the district court appointed new counsel on the first request, the delay would have been less than it is now.

As an aside, regarding the two filings. There was a Kafka-esque procedural block that prevented the review of his petition the first time. His request to replace his old lawyers was denied and his appeal was denied because it wasn't his old lawyers who filed it. That's an absurdity that only makes sense if you think the purpose of capital appeals is to go through the motions rather than look for legal error. And, once it was denied, I'm not sure what you should expect him to do. I'm not a fan of motions filed for the sole purpose of delaying and it's hard to argue petitioner should re-file all motions denied on the off chance it works the second time. He was lucky it did, but it never should have gotten to that point. The dismissal of the petition in 2007 was the cause of the delay, not the defendant.

Posted by: Erik M | Jan 21, 2015 6:41:31 AM

Erik M.,

Regardless he was on notice that there was a conflict issue, and I would say that at some point waiver should well apply.

A party can proceed with conflicted counsel by agreement, I would merely extend that to constructive waiver where there is notice of the conflict and the party proceeds anyway. And I would say that seven years inaction is enough to extinguish any such right he might have had for conflict free counsel during the earlier proceeding. As an example of this, reading the PC opinion cert wasn't even sought for the 2007 ruling, I would say that should be the end of it (again ignoring the claim that he is so mentally deficient that he was not capable of knowing there were deadlines for filings or that they had passed).

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jan 21, 2015 9:27:54 AM

Soronel: It's not just that he may have been too mentally deficient to understand what was happening. According to his new lawyers, anyway, his original lawyers actively misled him about the status of his appeals. This isn't a case where the lawyers abandon the client and just go away. The claim is that they abandoned the client when it mattered (i.e. the year leading up to and including the AEDPA deadline), and then, when they realized their error, they filed the untimely petition and kept up appearances by litigating hopeless appeals and leading the impaired, isolated client to believe that the habeas process was proceeding normally.

Posted by: anon | Jan 21, 2015 11:40:28 AM

So what?

Missouri, even now, is the holder of a final habeas judgment in its favor. It's interest in carrying out its judgment is at its zenith. So where was the Supreme Court's logic holding that a mere statutory right applicable to habeas petitions somehow overrides the state's interest? Huh? Seems to me that unless the criminal made a showing that he was likely to succeed on the merits of his underlying claim, then he's assed out.

On top of all of this--the seven years. If he gets to reopen his case, then we have a 8 year habeas case. And that delay was caused by a defendant not pushing his rights--sounds unreasonable to ignore the statutory rights of the victims.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 22, 2015 12:38:58 AM

I love it when federalist calls Justices Scalia and Roberts lawless, utterly irresponsible, and utterly contemptible. It makes my day.

Posted by: lawyer | Jan 22, 2015 11:18:24 AM

Federalist, based on your body of work here, you obviously see the whole federal habeas corpus system as an inconvenience (at least when the main issue is not about innocence but about the constitutional adequacy of the trial or capital sentencing process) and the whole individual sentencing/mitigation enterprise in capital cases as top-down-imposed mollycoddling of criminals. Working from those premises, I see your point. But if we are working from the premise that current 8th Amendment doctrine is legitimate/important and that the federal habeas system has a purpose beyond rubber-stamping convictions and death sentences, less so.

First, according to the well plead allegations in the papers, the "final habeas judgment" is only purportedly final because of the gross malfeasance of the original lawyers, which (arguably) amounted to abandonment. And the delay of 7 years is also attributable to the fraudulent actions of those lawyers in keeping the impaired client in the dark about the true status of his case. Once he learned the true facts, he acted within days or weeks. Moreover, the post-conviction process in Missouri did not appear to be particularly thorough, with the trial judge signing the State's 170-page order without any edits. The specific right under discussion may be statutory, but the ultimate purpose is to vindicate constitutional rights, and it is well-established that the federal courts have a right to maintain the status quo while they weigh those claims. I don't understand the argument that the petitioner here should forgo his right to federal review because that process has been unreasonably delayed for reasons (allegedly) beyond his control.

Finally, the papers also allege that there is a mountain of unpresented mitigation evidence in this case that shows that Christeson, who committed the crime at 18 or 19 years old, had a "childhood" that rivals the horror show recounted in a case like Wiggins. The allegations read like something out of the show True Detective, with Christeson's deviant uncle collecting neglected/unwanted kids on a rural compound of trailers where he systematically abused them, etc. This is absolutely the kind of thing that can sway a jury from death to life without parole, so he very well may have a likelihood of success on the merits if the information was reasonable available and his trial counsel failed to investigate.

Posted by: anon | Jan 22, 2015 12:58:26 PM

Interesting, anon. I think I see your point--general principles conforming to your notion of fair play trump all else when it comes to protecting some unquestionably guilty child-murderer. Well, I am proud that my "body of work" implacably rejects that "kindness to the cruel" nonsense.

The bottom line, according to unimpeachable law, is that a State's (and victims' family's) interest in the State enforcing its criminal judgment of death is at its zenith when the State is the holder of a habeas judgment in its favor. And according to even more unimpeachable law is that in order for the federal courts to stay an execution, the condemned has to make a showing that he is likely to succeed on the merits. Finally, all that nonsense about abandonment doesn't get the job done either--the State simply ain't responsible for that in a federal habeas petition, and its interests, let alone the interests of the victims' family (which are enshrined in federal statutes too). General principles don't trump that--at least when it comes to legal reasoning (the Supreme Court gets to do what it wants, but that isn't law, but raw power).

This is a laughable decision--unworthy of any court, let alone the most powerful one in the land.

The graves of those victims are silent testimony to the contemptuousness of the stay and the decision.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 23, 2015 6:51:29 PM

Thanks for another chuckle of the day, federalist. It's heartening to know you put justices like Scalia and Roberts in the same category as Sotomayor - utter contempt. (I guess you realize now that Roberts was telling a whopper when he said he just "calls balls and strikes.")

Posted by: lawyer | Jan 24, 2015 11:16:17 AM

I have nothing but contempt for the stay and the decision.

Try dealing with what i have written, rather than the snark.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 24, 2015 12:38:08 PM

that's funny federalist. Just what the heck is an "unimpeachable law?" would that be something like the laws the USSC used to say SLAVERY was legal for almost a CENTURY before they changed it?

sorry but there is legally no such thing as an "unimpeachable" law!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 24, 2015 11:06:24 PM

OK, federalist, I'll bite. You wrote that "the lawless Supreme Court" has "shown itself to be utterly irresponsible," that "the Members of the Court that imposed a lawless stay have now subjected them [the victim's family] to more pain. Utterly contemptible."

Your comments are personal, attacking not just the decision but those who made the decision, calling justices like Roberts and Scalia who joined in the stay "utterly contemptible." I find this amusingly inconsistent since you praise Justices Roberts and Scalia in other contexts. It's hard to see how judges like Roberts and Scalia, who are so utterly contemptible, so utterly lawless, can ever render sound decisions, yet in your view they sometimes do.

I don't think credibility is what you're going for on this blog, but if you are, focusing your comments more on the substance of the S.Ct's rulings and less on the perceived immorality of the justices with whom you disagree would increase your credibility.

If what you're going for is producing chuckles, though, keep it up. It works.

Posted by: lawyer | Jan 25, 2015 10:49:12 AM

You're right--the comments ARE personal. They should be. There's a strong moral element here, and there are serious rule of law concerns.

Missouri holds a habeas corpus judgment in its favor that is seven years old. That's supposed to mean something. So when Missouri sets a date with a decent amount of time in advance, as I noted (and no one here has disagreed), the State's interest (and the victims' family's interest) in carrying out the judgment is at its zenith. The Court brushed aside this compelling law in favor of an unexplained stay grant. That was bad enough.

But then the Court sees fit to issue a BS opinion that fails to address the fundamental issue--why is an alleged federal habeas malfunction grounds for a stay? The error isn't chargeable to Missouri, and the victims' family's interest in the timely execution of the judgment has been ignored. (Note: if the habeas judgment is ripped open, it is likely that the victims' family will have had to suffer through a 10 year habeas slog, which is not acceptable under federal law giving victims certain rights).

The reason, I think, that the Court doesn't deal with those issues is that there is an unwritten rule that the Court will not allow an execution to proceed unless it feels that the criminal has gotten a thorough habeas review. Of course, unwritten "rules" are an anathema to the rule of law, and it calls into question the morality of those who hide behind them and ignore victims' families. The Court in this case chose to ignore federalism concerns and victims' families rights for the benefit of a vicious capital murder. It did so with a weak opinion that has an obvious hole.

My guess, lawyer, is that you're one of those lawyers who subscribe to the idea of lese majeste when it comes to our august courts. Not I. To take another example--Sotomayor's opinion in Buck v. Thaler is dreck, and obviously dreck. Am I supposed to simply criticize the opinion--or can I impute either stupidity or lawlessness to the "wise [sic] Latina?" By the way, lawyer, it's funny--no one in here could seem to defend the "wise [sic] Latina's" reasoning in here. That's because ipe dixit doesn't work in here.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 25, 2015 2:32:09 PM

Bravo federalist. That's exactly what I was hoping to prompt - a more substantive attack on the decision you disagree with and a less personal attack on the justices themselves. While you think justices like Roberts, Scalia and Sotomayor are immoral human beings, most people, especially lawyers, don't see them that way. They see them as basically moral human beings whose decisions they sometimes disagree with.

You have so much more credibility when you attack the decision itself rather than the justices. Whether issued by wise Anglos or wise Latinas, there will always be decisions you disagree with, and if your goal is productive debate, it's wiser to leave the personal attacks aside.

Posted by: lawyer | Jan 25, 2015 2:55:23 PM

Apparently, you miss the point. My post here justifies casting moral aspersions. And I've been pretty detailed with my reasoning.

Try defending the opinion instead of giving me faux congratulations that I have corrected my ways. Quite honestly, lawyer, I don't give a flying you know what at a rolling doughnut about your assessment of my credibility. Each one of my posts here sets forth my reasoning. You, on the other hand, tut-tut about name-calling etc.

Well, lawyer, here's your opportunity--care to defend the sorry reasoning of this case?

Posted by: federalist | Jan 25, 2015 3:38:38 PM

Just a note to point out that what federalist characterizes as "alleged attorney errors" is an error conceded both by the attorneys themselves and by the dissent, which notes that the error was "serious" (at p. 2). As for federalist's citation-free, notionally legal analysis, I have no comment since habeas isn't my area.

Posted by: Michael Drake | Jan 30, 2015 4:56:21 PM

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