June 11, 2012
Supreme Court Action: Habeas Corpus and Appealing An Adverse Civil Service Decision
The Supreme Court issued two opinions this morning. Neither of them are high profile decisions that will define this term. The first is Parker v. Matthews (11-845). It’s a habeas corpus case where the Supreme Court corrects the Sixth Circuit for substituting its judgment for that of the jury and the Supreme Court of Kentucky. Matthews broke into his estranged wife’s house where over the course of the night he shot and murdered his wife and mother-in-law with a gun he purchased earlier in the day with borrowed money. He was apprehended at his mother’s house where he was attempting to remove or hide evidence of the crime.
Matthews introduced psychiatric evidence that he acted under “extreme emotional disturbance” which would have reduced the crime from murder to first-degree manslaughter. The jury rejected the evidence and convicted Matthews on all charges. He was sentenced to death. Matthews claimed on appeal that the evidence did not establish that he acted in the absence of extreme emotional disturbance. The Kentucky Supreme Court found that there was more than enough evidence to support the capital murder verdict.
Matthews brought a habeas petition in Federal District Court alleging the same grounds in contravention of federal law. The District Court Judge denied the petition but the Sixth Circuit reversed. That Court held that the Kentucky Supreme Court had shifted the burden of proving extreme emotional disturbance to Matthews and that Kentucky had failed to prove the absence of extreme emotional disturbance beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Sixth Circuit relied on Kentucky precedent that allocated the burden for proving and overcoming evidence of extreme emotional disturbance. The Kentucky Supreme Court cited one of its earlier opinions in Matthews’ appeal that absence of extreme emotional disturbance is not an element of the crime of murder that Kentucky needs to prove. The Sixth Circuit rejected that rationale as a violation of due process by judicially revising the Kentucky murder statute.
The Supreme Court rejected this, stating this was not the entire basis of Matthew’s conviction. The jury instructions at the trial required the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Matthews had not acted “under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance for which there was a reasonable justification or excuse under the circumstances as he believed them to be.” That was enough to sustain the conviction.
The Sixth Circuit further justified its decision on alleged prosecutorial misconduct via statements in closing arguments that Matthews and his counsel fabricated his defense. The Court chided the Sixth Circuit for citing its own precedent when Supreme Court precedent controlled the the outcome of the argument. The opinion was issued per curiam with no dissents.
The second case is Elgin v. Department of Treasury (11-45). The case concerns a civil service employee who was discharged pursuant to a statute which bars anyone from Executive agency employment who has knowingly and willfully failed to register for the Selective Service as required by the Military Selective Service Act. Elgin claimed the statute requiring discharge is an unconstitutional bill of attainder and unconstitutionally discriminates on the basis of sex when combined the male-only registration requirement.
The case proceeded through the Merit Systems Protection Board where Elgin’s claim was rejected. The administrative law judge said he didn’t have the authority to adjudicate the constitutional question. Elgin’s procedural course under the statute was to appeal an adverse decision by the MSPB to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. He instead joined with others in filing a suit in Federal District Court. The Court found that it had general federal question jurisdiction and denied the constitutional claims on the merits. The First Circuit reversed, holding that the District Court had no jurisdiction. Elgin and others could not adopt a different review scheme for their claims simply because they claimed constitutional violations.
The Supreme Court affirmed the First Circuit. The constitutional claims could be adjudicated in the Federal Circuit once denied by the administrative law judge at the MSPB level. The statute’s text makes it clear that Congress intended the procedural route it prescribed was the exclusive avenue for adjudication of claims, even constitutional claims. Elgin’s arguments to the contrary, such as the lack of a record at the MSPB deprived him of a meaningful hearing at the Federal Circuit, were rejected. The Court stated that the Federal Circuit could take judicial notice of facts related to the constitutional question.
Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Breyer, and Sotomayor. Justice Alito dissented, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan. The Health Care decision waits for another day. [MG]