Sunday, October 22, 2023
Sometimes, after an opinion is drafted, members of a court change their minds. It may be that the draft highlights something a member of the majority finds sufficiently troubling that the result should change. It may be that the draft opens the door to something a judge believes should be off the table.
One way that an outsider can tell that a judge lost the majority is when the dissent contains a fuller statement of the facts than the majority opinion. It suggests that the original majority opinion was turned into a dissent and the original dissent became the opinion of the court.
Something quite unusual in this regard took place in the Fifth Circuit earlier this month. The State of Texas filed an emergency appeal of a stay of execution for a death-row prisoner who challenged state statutes that precluded him from receiving DNA testing to establish his innocence of crimes that he was not convicted of but that qualified him for the death penalty because of presumed “future dangerousness.” The issue he raised was also pending in the Fifth Circuit in another case brought by a different inmate.
In this case, the inmate first argued that the court had no jurisdiction over the interlocutory appeal because the district court called its order a stay, rather than an injunction. The majority opinion, by Judge Leslie Southwick, quickly set that semantical issue aside, calling it “commonplace” that such jurisdiction existed and noted that the dissenting opinion “contains the same analysis, and we restate much of it here.”
Judge Jerry Smith, a member of that Court since 1987, dissented. His dissent begins with a strange and unique statement:
The majority opinion is grave error. It succumbs to a vapid last-minute attempt to stay an execution that should have occurred decades ago.
In the interest of time, instead of penning a long dissent pointing to the panel majority's and district court's myriad mistakes, I attach the Fifth Circuit panel opinion that should have been issued.
What follows is an opinion that in look and feel appears to be a majority opinion written by Judge Smith and joined by all members of the panel. The opinion expresses the same pique evident in the second prefatory sentence before it about the courts’ indulgence of repeated appeals and a rejection of the merits of the prisoner’s case.
Judge James Graves specially concurred in the majority opinion. attachment of a proposed majority opinion drafted by Judge Smith. The opinion takes pains to rebut the dissent’s “proposed majority opinion,” which Judge Graves said he never joined. The detail in this concurrence suggests that it was originally a dissenting opinion, which succeeded in changing Judge Southwick’s mind, much to Judge Smith’s apparent consternation.
For an appellate advocate, the self-evident dynamics in the case makes the concurrence worth studying. It carefully parses the position of the original majority to demonstrate that it decides more than the case presents. Instead of looking to the validity of the laws that prevent use of DNA evidence to sentencing, which Judge Smith suggests is a losing proposition for the inmate, but that, procedurally, with another case under advisement raising the same issues, the district court did not abuse its discretion in staying the execution pending its disposition because there is no reasonable “basis to distinguish the present appeal.”
Perhaps if appellate counsel had limited the argument to the common-sense idea that a determinative case is pending, we might have seen a straightforward and brief opinion similarly supporting the stay without the odd display of internal friction at the court. This case is Murphy v. Nasser, No. 23-70005, 2023 WL 6814520 (5th Cir. Oct. 10, 2023).