November 14, 2011
Supreme Court Action: Arbitration And A Whole Lot of Habeas
The Supreme Court issued four opinions in the last two weeks. Three of them are Per Curiam and one was authored by Justice Scalia. The first of these is Cavasos v. Smith (10-1115). It’s an unusual case involving the prosecution of a grandmother for the death of a child due to shaken baby syndrome (SDS). Smith was convicted of assault on a child resulting in death under California law. The California Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and the California Supreme Court denied a hearing.
The magistrate hearing the habeas corpus petition found the evidence conflicting but sufficient to support a conviction. The District Court adopted the magistrate’s conclusions and denied the petition. The Ninth Circuit reversed, with an order to grant the writ, taking the view that the evidence could have gone either way. The Supreme Court reversed, stating that there was evidence for SDS, despite the fact that it did not fit a classic pattern of trauma evidence. The Ninth Circuit should not have questioned the result in the case or found it to be unreasonable under existing precedent. The Court notes with some irritation that it has reversed the Ninth Circuit twice before on this case.
The lengthy dissent by Justice Ginsberg, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, argues that the evidence of injury is close and based on medical testimony that would be better informed if given today. It’s also the type of case that the Court normally would not grant review but for its desire to slap down the Ninth Circuit one more time:
In sum, this is a notably fact-bound case in which the Court of Appeals unquestionably stated the correct rule of law. It is thus “the type of case in which we are most inclined to deny certiorari.” Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U. S. 419, 460 (1995) (SCALIA, J., dissenting). Nevertheless, the Court is bent on rebuking the Ninth Circuit for what it conceives to be defiance of our prior remands. See ante, at 8. I would not ignore Smith’s plight and choose her case as a fit opportunity to teach the Ninth Circuit a lesson.
The next case, KPMG LLP v. Cocchi (10-1521) is an arbitration case decided on November 7th. The case comes to the Court from the Florida Court of Appeals for the Fourth District, that court having upheld a decision by the trial court refusing to compel arbitration on some of the claims presented to it by plaintiffs against KPMG. The trial court did not compel arbitration as it found two of the four claims not arbitral, and the other two not directly arbitral. The rule in place is that any claims that are arbitral should be resolved through that process. The evidence and application of law are uncertain as to whether these other claims would qualify for arbitration. The Court reversed, sending the case back for hearings on the issue.
The third case is Bobby v. Dixon (10-1540), also decided on November 7th. It is a habeas corpus case concerning the rule that “must show that the state court’s ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fair minded disagreement.” The claim in this case is whether a confession should have been suppressed following an initial questioning session without Miranda warnings followed by several other sessions where warnings were repeatedly given and with explicit acknowledgement by the defendant. Another is that the defendant was told that a co-defendant was going to cut a deal when that was not the case. A third is whether the confession should have been suppressed when the defendant confessed without warnings, was given warnings shortly thereafter, and confessed again. The Ohio Supreme Court rejected these claims and upheld the conviction. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, holding the confessions inadmissible. The Court examined the precedent where it had condemned the “two-step” interrogation and found the rules as developed did not apply to the facts of this case. As such, the Ohio Supreme Court was correct and the Sixth Circuit reversed.
The last case, Greene v. Fisher (10-637), was decided on November 8th. Greene was convicted on charges of murder, robbery, and conspiracy. The prosecution admitted redacted versions of confessions by Greene’s non-testifying codefendants. The rule in place at the time was that the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment was not offended when the confessions were redacted to remove references to the defendant by name. Between the time first appellate appeal (which affirmed the conviction) and that to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court announced Gray v. Maryland, 523 U. S. 185, 195 (1998), which held that redactions that informed the jury that a name had been redacted fell within the proscription of the Confrontation Clause rules. The Pennsylvania later dismissed the appeal.
Greene filed a habeas corpus petition based on the change in the law and the Third Circuit declined to grant the petition, holding that the law in place at the time of his petition governed. Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, held that the law in place at the time is the law considered when a state court renders its decision. A the last state adjudication on the issue took place some three months before the appeal process, the new rule was not clearly established federal law at the time, affirming the Third Circuit. [MG]