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January 8, 2013
Supreme Court Action: The Clean Water Act And Competency In Habeas Proceedings
The Supreme Court issued its first opinions of 2013 this morning. The first of two cases is Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. (11-460). The case involves an interpretation of the Clean Water Act. The NRCD along with Santa Monica Baykeeper filed a citizen’s suit against the District claiming that the water quality measurements from monitors within the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers showed that the level of pollutants exceeded that allowed by its permit to discharge. The District Court held that the record was insufficient to hold the L.A. District liable. Other entities besides the L.A. District also discharge via permit into the rivers. The Ninth Circuit reversed holding that the pollution levels were detected at monitoring stations in concrete lined portions of the rivers to lower, unlined portions of the rivers. That Court concluded that the concrete lined portions of the rivers were under control of the L.A. District.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the flow of water from an improved portion of a navigable waterway to an unimproved portion of the same waterway does not qualify as a discharge of a pollutant under the Clean Water Act. This, essentially, was an answer to the question presented. This was based on precedent which the Court said all parties agreed covered the issue. The Court rejected attempts by the NRDC to argue that the L.A District exceeded its permitted levels as shown by its monitoring system. That argument, the Court said, failed below and will not be addressed here. Justice Ginsburg wrote for an essentially unanimous Court with Justice Alito concurring in the judgment rather than joining in the opinion. The NRDC issued a press release on the opinion here.
The second case is a bit more complex and involves review of two cases that present, more or less, the same issue on mental competency and habeas corpus. Ryan v. Valencia Gonzalez (10-930) asks the question whether a state defendant on death row can suspend his habeas proceedings due to mental competency issues that may deny him the ability to effectively communicate with his counsel. Both the Ninth and Sixth Circuits said yes. Justice Thomas, writing for a unanimous Court said no.Justice Thomas made a distinction to the right of competence at trial does not flow from the Sixth Amendment right to counsel but rather from due process. Further, the right to competence does not flow from a right to counsel. Habeas proceedings essentially rely on the record below. Attorneys for habeas petitioners should have ample time and ability to research claims utilizing the materials developed at trial and on direct appeal. The Ninth and Sixth Circuits relied on different portions of Title 18 of the U.S. Code to provide a statutory right to competence. These were rejected by the Court as these sections either did not apply to habeas cases as the Courts of Appeal suggested or were limited to federal, not state defendants. [MG]