Lockyer v. Andrade (01-1127), Washington State Dept. of Social & Health Services v. Guardianship Estate of Keffeler (01-1420)

March 6, 2003 Supreme Court Update

Greetings Court fans!
Before turning to the opinions, let me again thank you all for bearing with me as I catch up on the opinions issued over the last two weeks. Due to work demands (i.e., paying clients), I may be delayed in my output, but I will catch up. Once we get through the current batch of opinions, I'll be back on schedule.
For now, two opinions:
The fourth opinion released yesterday was also a three-strikes case, but it arose in the special context of a habeas proceeding. In Lockyer v. Andrade (01-1127), the Court upheld Andrade's sentence (2 consecutive terms of 25 years to life) for stealing $150 worth of videotapes from two stores. On 2 separate occasions in November 1995, Andrade -- who had been in and out of state and federal prison since 1982 -- stole videotapes from a KMart store. Because of Andrade's prior convictions, his petty thefts at KMart qualified as felonies under California law, and these felonies made Andrade eligible for the "special" sentence reserved for recidivist offenders: 25 years to life. Andrade was convicted of the felonies and sentenced to 2 consecutive terms of 25 years to life in prison. On appeal, a state court affirmed his sentence, rejecting his argument that it violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In reaching this conclusion, the appellate court compared Andrade's sentence to a sentence upheld by the Supreme Court in Rummel v. Estelle, and found that Andrade's sentence was not disproportionate. Andrade filed a federal habeas petition to challenge his sentence, and the district court denied his petition. On appeal, however, the Ninth Circuit reversed.
In an opinion by O'Connor (for herself, Rehnquist, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas), the Court reversed. The key to the opinion is the standard governing a federal court's review of a habeas petition filed by a state prisoner. A federal court may not grant a habeas petition for a state prisoner unless the state court's decision "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." 28 USC 2254(d)(1). The initial question thus faced by the Court was determining what constitutes "clearly established Federal law" by the Supreme Court in the Eighth Amendment context. In a remarkable degree of candor, the Court acknowledged that its precedents in this area "have not been a model of clarity" and that the Court has "not established a clear or consistent path for courts to follow." Despite the muddle of decisions in this area, the Court identified one principle that governs the Eighth Amendment inquiry: a gross disproportionality principle applies to sentences for terms of years, although the precise contours of the principle are unclear.
The Court next turned to evaluating whether the state court's affirmance of Andrade's sentence was "contrary to" or "an unreasonable application of" the principle. An application is "contrary to" federal law when a court confronts a set of facts materially indistinguishable from a decision of the Supreme Court and nevertheless arrives at a different result. Here, the California court properly relied on Rummel to evaluate Andrade's sentence. Moreover, the California court's decision was not an unreasonable application of federal law. The Ninth Circuit had held that it was an unreasonable application because it constituted clear error, but the Supreme Court specifically rejected that analysis. Under the "unreasonable application" analysis, a federal court may not reject a state court's holding merely because the federal court believes the state court erred. The state court's application must be objectively unreasonable. Here, the state court did not unreasonably apply federal law, especially in light of the significant uncertainty of the content of that law.
Souter (for himself, Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer) dissented, finding that the state court's affirmance of the sentence was unreasonable. First, Souter found Andrade's sentence materially similar to the sentence in Solem v. Helm, which the Court held violated the Eighth Amendment. Second, the dissenters found the application of two 25-year terms for what was essentially one offense a grossly disproportionate punishment, especially considering the purposes behind the three-strikes law (incapacitation). Souter concluded with the following sentence: "If Andrade's sentence is not grossly disproportionate, the principle has no meaning."
Turning next to a short (and not all that interesting) opinion that issued last week, in Washington State Dept. of Social & Health Services v. Guardianship Estate of Keffeler (01-1420), the Court upheld Washington State's use of social security benefits to reimburse itself for the costs of providing foster care to children who receive such benefits. (Most of you will want to drop off about right now; this opinion is basically unremarkable. There's one nice section applying the noscitur a sociis and ejusdem generis canons of construction, but beyond that, there's not much here for you unless you're running a state foster care system.)
Social security benefits are generally paid directly to the beneficiary, but they can be paid to a "representative payee" so long as the representative payee uses the money for the beneficiary's "use and benefit." Unsurprisingly, payments for "current maintenance" (i.e., food, shelter, clothing, etc.) are considered payments for the use and benefit of the beneficiary. A separate provision of the social security act, Section 407, protects benefits from "execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other legal process."
Washington acts as the "representative payee" for social security benefits for certain children in its foster care system. The state itself rarely uses these funds to purchase food, clothing, shelter, etc. Rather, it uses the funds to reimburse foster care providers who make those purchases. A group of foster children brought suit claiming that the state's use of their benefits to reimburse itself for the costs of their care violates Section 407. In a unanimous opinion (authored by Souter), the Court rejected that argument. As no one argued that the state's actions amounted to attachment, execution, levy or garnishment, the Court focused on whether the state's actions were "other legal process." Applying the noscitur a sociis and ejusdem generis canons, the Court interpreted this language to be processes similar to the processes of execution, levy, attachment, or garnishment--i.e., some sort of judicial or quasi-judicial mechanism. (This interpretation was buttressed by regulations.). Under this restrictive understanding of "other legal process," the state's actions did not violate Section 407. Finally, the Court responded to the respondents' real objection to the state's reimbursement practice: the respondents believe that the practice is antithetical to the best interest of the children. The Court rejected this argument, explaining (with help from amici) that the reimbursement practice actually helps children. (I told you this case wasn't that interesting.)
That's all for tonight. Thanks for reading,
From the Appellate Practice Group at Wiggin & Dana.
For more information, contact Mark Kravitz or Sandy Glover
at 203-498-4400, or visit our website at www.wiggin.com.