Dretke v. Haley (02-1824), Middleton v. McNeil (03-1028) and IBP v. Alvarez (03-1238)

May 5, 2004 Supreme Court Update

Greetings Court fans!

As promised, here is the second half of the update on Monday's news. We have 2 opinions to cover and one item from the order list, so let's get started.
I'll begin with Dretke v. Haley (02-1824), a habeas case in which the Court punted on the question presented. As all habeas gurus know, federal courts will not consider a procedurally defaulted constitutional claim in a habeas petition unless the petitioner can show "cause and prejudice" to excuse the default. Of course, because this is habeas law, there is an exception to this rule: A petitioner does not have to show cause and prejudice if he can show that the constitutional error has resulted in the conviction of one who is actually innocent (1) of the underlying offense, or (2) in the capital sentencing context, of the aggravating circumstances rendering the defendant eligible for the death penalty. In this case, the question presented was whether this "actual innocence" exception applies when the petitioner asserts "actual innocence" of a noncapital sentence. Here's the upshot: The Court won't answer this question. Instead, in an opinion by O'Connor (for herself, the Chief, Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg and Breyer), the Court holds that a federal court faced with an "actual innocence" claim must first address all non-defaulted claims for relief and other grounds for cause to excuse the procedural default.
I'm betting that that's about all you want to know, so let me describe the interesting part of this case, the state's position. (Interesting to me, at least.) Haley was convicted of theft for stealing a calculator from Wal-Mart, and was eligible for a 2-year sentence for this offense. Because he had some priors, however, the state sentenced him under the state habitual offender statute to a 16-year term. (This is Texas, by the way.) Although nobody noticed it at the time, it turns out that Haley wasn't really eligible for sentencing under the habitual offender statute. The state conceded that he had been sentenced in error, but instead of confessing error, argued -- all the way to the Supreme Court -- that his habeas petition should be denied. (Keep in mind that by this time, Haley has served 6 years of the 16-year sentence; four more than he would have served but for the error.) The majority didn't seem all that troubled by the state's position, although O'Connor took pains to point out that she was pretty sure that Haley's petition would be successful on one of the alternative grounds to be considered below. The dissents, however, thought the state's litigating position was outrageous. Stevens (for himself, Kennedy and Souter) argued that this is a textbook case for habeas relief: habeas is supposed to prevent the miscarriage of justice that occurs when someone is convicted of a crime he did not commit. The state's position in this case raises questions about whether the state has "forgotten its overriding obligation to serve the cause of justice." But the Court has forgotten this obligation as well. Fundamental fairness should dictate the outcome of this case. Kennedy wrote separately to comment on the obligation of government officials when they know an individual has been sentenced for a crime he did not commit. As Kennedy notes, the criminal justice system depends, to some degree, on the discretion of those who enforce the law. This discretion, along with the clemency power entrusted to executives, "hold out the promise that mercy is not foreign to our system." But mercy seems to have been lost here. "Executive discretion and clemency can inspire little confidence if officials sworn to fight injustice choose to ignore it."
Turning next to Middleton v. McNeil (03-1028), I'll be brief. This is a per curiam summary reversal of a Ninth Circuit habeas decision that is the latest in the line of decisions that remind habeas courts to give proper deference to state court decisions. Here, the state courts rejected the petitioner's argument challenging the jury instructions at her trial, but the Ninth Circuit accepted that argument. As the Supreme Court pointed out, however, the federal court should not grant habeas on a ground rejected by a state court unless the state court decision rested on an objectively unreasonable application of federal law. The state court's decision was a proper application of federal law, however, and so the Ninth Circuit erred to grant the habeas petition.
Finally, on Monday's order list, the Court asked the Solicitor General to weigh in on the following case: IBP v. Alvarez (03-1238). This case is about the "changing clothes"exception under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The questions presented are as follows: (1) Does walking that occurs between compensable clothes-changing time and time employees arrive at or depart from their actual work stations constitute non-compensable "walking to and from the actual place of performance of the principal activity" under the statute? (2) Is the Dept. of Labor's interpretation of "clothes" entitled to deference when that interpretation is embodied in an opinion letter by the administrator charged with enforcing the statute, when Congress has provided that third parties may rely on such opinion letters and when the opinion letter restores the agency's prior position?
That's all for now. The Court will next release opinions and/or order lists on May 17. Until then, thanks for reading!
From the Appellate Practice Group at Wiggin and Dana.
For more information, contact Sandy Glover, Aaron Bayer, or Jeff Babbin
at 203-498-4400, or visit our website at www.wiggin.com.