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November 9, 2009

SCOTUS summary reversal of Sixth Circuit capital ineffective assistance ruling

As detailed in this SCOTUSblog post, the Supreme Court issued "no new cert. grants this morning ... [but there was a] summary disposition in the case Bobby v. Van Hook(09-144), which was granted and reversed."  The per curiam ruling in Van Hook can be accessed at this link, and here is how it starts:

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted habeas relief to Robert Van Hook on the ground that he did not receive effective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of his capital trial.  Because we think it clear that Van Hook’s attorneys met the constitutional minimum of competence under the correct standard, we grant the petition and reverse.

Justice Alito has an interesting one-paragraph concurrence to the ruling in Van Hook.  Here it is:

I join the Court’s per curiam opinion but emphasize my understanding that the opinion in no way suggests that the American Bar Association’s Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases (rev. ed. 2003) (2003 Guidelines or ABA Guidelines) have special relevance in determining whether an attorney’s performance meets the standard required by the Sixth Amendment.  The ABA is a venerable organization with a history of service to the bar, but it is, after all, a private group with limited membership.  The views of the association’s members, not to mention the views of the members of the advisory committee that formulated the 2003 Guidelines, do not necessarily reflect the views of the American bar as a whole.  It is the responsibility of the courts to determine the nature of the work that a defense attorney must do in a capital case in order to meet the obligations imposed by the Constitution, and I see no reason why the ABA Guidelines should be given a privileged position in making that determination.

November 9, 2009 at 11:58 AM | Permalink


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Honestly this just looks like a panel that was bound and determined to overturn the sentence regardless of law.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Nov 9, 2009 12:39:55 PM

Look at who the author of the Sixth Circuit panel decision was: Gil Merritt. He's the same judge who granted the last minute stay (in his living room) to Sedley Alley.

He should be recused from capital cases.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 9, 2009 12:54:48 PM

SCOTUS just denied a stay for Beltway sniper. What is interesting is who dissented from denial of stay. In similar cases, only Stevens and Ginsburg (never Breyer or Souter) would sign their names to dissents criticizing the practice of denying a stay before cert was considered at conference. They now have a third: Sotomayor (still not Breyer, who will likely retire after Stevens and Ginsburg).

*Now* can we stop with the "Sotomayor-was-a-prosecutor-so-she-will-be-more-conservative-than-Democrats-wished-for-and-thus-bite-them-in-the-ass-for-identity-politics" meme? (Even though Warren and Souter were both prosecutors ...)

Posted by: . | Nov 9, 2009 12:57:48 PM

I would not conclude they were ignoring the law. Although I agree with you (and with Sup. Ct.) that they got it wrong, it doesn't mean they did so deliberately.

It often happens that if a panel reverses on one issue, they do not consider all of the other issues on which they could potentially have reversed. It is actually quite common for a decision to be vacated, and on remand the panel reaches the same result for different reasons.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Nov 9, 2009 12:58:09 PM

Stevens' dissent is a bit whiny.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 9, 2009 1:26:39 PM

"Stevens' dissent is a bit whiny. "

It's whiny because it's boilerplate that he copypastas.

Posted by: . | Nov 9, 2009 1:30:26 PM

*Now* can we stop with the "Sotomayor-was-a-prosecutor-so-she-will-be-more-conservative-than-Democrats-wished-for-and-thus-bite-them-in-the-ass-for-identity-politics" meme?

Over the course of hundreds of cases over many decades, that will probably turn out to be true, except to those who view liberalism and conservatism as unitary concepts that have no degrees of shading.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Nov 9, 2009 1:37:03 PM

Correction, Stevens' statement was a bit whiny. He concurred in the denial of cert. Something about racist mass-murderers I guess.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 9, 2009 2:10:39 PM

Saying it sounded a bit whiny sounds a bit whiny.

Sotomayor earlier joined another statement or dissent in a death penalty order situation. Waiting a few weeks to deny his request is also not very "liberal" ... in fact, it can be as much about keeping SC prerogatives in place.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 9, 2009 3:02:44 PM

Alito is not my favorite justice. His agendas are so transparent. At least CJ Roberts has some style and grace.

Posted by: anon | Nov 9, 2009 10:18:55 PM

The ABA is just another NACDL, NAACP, ACLU type of group. That's why there membership has dwindled - they went from being a professional organization to taking positions that many of their members did not agree with. They lost their credibility tremendously over the past 25 years.

Posted by: Corky | Nov 10, 2009 10:15:46 PM

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