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July 8, 2011

Split Ninth Circuit panel reverses Arizona death sentence based on claim of judicial bias

The split Ninth Circuit panel has reversed an Arizona death sentence today in Hurles v. Ryan, No. 08-99032 (9th Cir. July 7, 2011) (available here), in an opinion that starts this way:

Richard D. Hurles appeals the district court’s denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus from his murder conviction and death sentence. He argues the district court erred on four issues: judicial bias, ineffective assistance of sentencing counsel, ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, and procedural default (related to portions of his ineffective assistance of counsel claims).

For the reasons set forth below, we reverse the district court’s denial of Hurles’s judicial bias claim. The highly unusual facts of this case — in which the trial judge became involved as a party in an interlocutory appeal, was denied standing to appear as an adversary, and then proceeded to preside over a murder trial and single-handedly determine Hurles’s death sentence — compel us to conclude that Hurles was denied his right to due process. These exceptional facts raise the probability of actual bias to an unconstitutional level.

A lengthy dissenting opinion by Judge Ikuta gets started this way:

Today the majority overturns a convicted murderer’s capital sentence, ignoring AEDPA’s command to defer to a state court’s decision unless it is objectively unreasonable. See Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 407 (2000).  The AEDPA analysis here is straightforward. During the preliminary phases of Hurles’s capital trial, the state trial judge denied Hurles’s motion for appointment of a second attorney. Hurles appealed that denial in a special action proceeding, and the state Attorney General submitted a brief in the trial judge’s name defending the ruling.  Over seven years later, after an unsuccessful direct appeal and post-conviction proceeding, Hurles claimed that the trial judge’s participation in the special action proceeding violated his due process rights and moved for her recusal from further participation in his case.  The trial judge denied Hurles’s motion and rejected his claim that her participation in the special action proceeding created an unconstitutional “appearance of bias.”  Hurles now claims that this conclusion is contrary to Supreme Court precedent.  Because there is no clearly established Supreme Court authority that even hints the trial court’s decision was wrong, we must defer to its determination and deny the petition.  Murdoch v. Castro, 609 F.3d 983, 991 (9th Cir. 2010) (en banc).

This ruling seems to have all the classic elements (e.g., win for state capital defendant, strong dissent) needed to prompt further review by an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit and/or the Justices of the Supreme Court.  It will be interesting to see how Arizona opts to continue this battle.

July 8, 2011 at 12:46 PM | Permalink


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I agree with the majority on this one. The state judge was more an advocate than a judge. That's the problem with AEDPA deference. the federal court has to rubber stamp state court incompetence!

Posted by: dave from texas | Jul 9, 2011 11:34:53 AM

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