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July 27, 2016

Spotlighting the travesty of how the Eleventh Circuit is handling Johnson claims

I highlighted in this post here last week the potent opinions by a number of Eleventh Circuit judges explaining why they think the Circuit's precendents for dealing with prisoner petitions based on the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), are so very wrong and unjust.  A helpful reader made sure that I did not miss this recent Bloomberg commentary on this topic authored by Noah Feldman headlined "This Is What 'Travesty of Justice' Looks Like."  Here are excerpts:

Call it Scalia’s revenge. In one of the last cases that he authored before he died in February, Justice Antonin Scalia convinced his colleagues to strike down a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act because it was unconstitutionally vague.  As a result, thousands of convicted felons are now asking courts to have their sentences reduced.

The legal rules for considering such post-conviction requests are tricky and technical.  But in most of the country, prisoners are getting another day in court to have their ACCA convictions reviewed in the light of the new legal principle.  In the Eleventh Circuit, which includes Alabama, Georgia and Florida, the process has gone badly awry [and] a judge on the circuit's court of appeals cried foul, calling for a fundamental change in how its handling these cases....

Before a prisoner can go back to the district court for what’s called a “second, successive” post-conviction petition, he or she needs special permission from a federal court of appeals.  The stakes are high for the prisoners.  In some cases, the difference might be between the 15-year minimum imposed on felons with three prior convictions, and a sentence of 10 years or less for fewer convictions.

Consequently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has been immersed in the time-consuming process of figuring out who should be allowed a second chance to file a petition in District Court seeking review of their sentence.  It's studying presentence reports to ascertain whether any of the prior convictions should still count, and, if so, how that might change the petitioner's sentence.  Yet no other court of appeals appears to be engaging in this kind of case-by-case analysis. They’ve been approving the requests automatically and allowing a federal district court to sort out the details.

Judge Beverly Martin of the Eleventh Circuit issued an unusual and stirring opinion ... declaring that the process in her court wasn’t working.  Martin asserted that among the thousands of applications and hundreds of denials, her court has been making mistakes -- mistakes that, by their legal nature, can't be appealed. “A court of appeals is simply not equipped to construct a new basis for a prisoner’s old sentence in this way,” she wrote.

To make matters worse, the Eleventh Circuit gives itself 30 days to rule on each request.  The presentence report can be inadequate or misleading, and there are no attorneys involved to explain what it means.  And most prior convictions are under state law, which varies from place to place and have technical details that are hard for the court to determine without a lawyer’s help.

What's more, the Eleventh Circuit had rejected petitions for reconsideration before the Supreme Court said its Johnson ruling applied retroactively.

The upshot is that something very like a travesty of justice is happening in the Eleventh Circuit.  And as you know if you’re still reading this, the issue is sufficiently technical that it’s hard to draw attention to the problem.  But real people are spending potentially many extra years in prison on the basis of an unconstitutional law.  That’s wrong.  In the spirit of Justice Scalia, the Eleventh Circuit should change course and start allowing district courts to review post-Johnson ACCA petitions the way the other circuits do.

July 27, 2016 at 08:12 AM | Permalink

Comments

Feldman is wrong that other circuits aren't "engaging in ... case-by-case analysis", although the Eleventh Circuit does seem to be taking a particularly close look at them on the merits. They also one of the few circuits to take 28 U.S. Code § 2244(b)(3)(D) seriously (contrary to Feldman, *Congress* gives the Eleventh Circuit 30 days; the Eleventh Circuit doesn't give itself 30 days). Also, the Eleventh Circuit staff attorney's office is assuredly "involved to explain what" the presentence report means, or at least I would hope.

I'm sympathetic to the argument that good petitions may be getting screened without appellate recourse, but I'm also skeptical of arguments from a judge that other judges on other courts should be doing more of this work, especially when AEDPA does (for whatever reason) put much of the burden on circuit judges to certify these petitions as a matter of first impression.

Posted by: IB | Jul 27, 2016 9:29:24 AM

There is a special kind of justice in the 11th Circuit.

Posted by: beth | Jul 27, 2016 2:37:20 PM

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