Supreme Court Update: Wilson v. Corcoran (10-91), Abbot v. United States (09-479) and Order List

November 22, 2010 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court fans!

We're back with the first two decisions (one per curium, one unanimous) of the October 2010 Term. Wilson v. Corcoran (10-91) addresses the requirements for issuing a federal writ of habeas corpus, and Abbot v. United States (09-479) considers the application of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which imposes a mandatory minimum sentence for possession or use of a firearm in connection with a crime of violence or a drug trafficking crime, where a greater mandatory minimum sentence is imposed on an offense arising from the same criminal transaction.

Wilson v. Corcoran (10-91) has a convoluted procedural history, including a prior trip to the Court. But its lesson is simple: federal courts must find a violation of federal law in order to issue a federal writ of habeas corpus.

Corcoran was convicted of multiple murders and sentenced to death by an Indiana trial court. On direct appeal, the Indiana Supreme Court vacated the sentence out of concern that the trial judge might have relied on non-statutory factors in imposing the death penalty in violation of state law. On remand, the trial court revised its sentencing order to state that it had relied only on statutory factors. The Indiana Supreme Court accepted that explanation and affirmed the sentence. Corcoran later filed a federal habeas petition arguing, among other things, that the trial court had relied on improper factors in sentencing him. Without addressing the sentencing issue, the district court granted habeas relief on entirely different grounds. The Seventh Circuit reversed and instructed the district court to deny the writ. In its first decision of the October 2009 Term, the Court vacated the Seventh Circuit's judgment and instructed the Seventh Circuit to permit the district court to consider the sentencing issue, or explain why such consideration was unnecessary. On remand, the Seventh Circuit simply granted habeas relief, without sending the case back to the district court or giving the parties an opportunity for briefing, on the ground that the Indiana Supreme Court had made an "unreasonable determination of the facts" when it accepted the trial court's representation that it had only relied on statutory factors. The Seventh Circuit opined that resentencing would cure the state trial court's "unreasonable determination of the facts" under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), and prevent non-compliance with Indiana law.

But the Seventh Circuit just can't seem to get it right. In its first decision of this Term, the Court vacated again, in a per curiam decision. This time, the Court reiterated that, under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), habeas relief may be afforded to a state prisoner only when his custody violates federal law. Section 2254(d) allows habeas petitioners to re-argue federal claims adjudicated on the merits in state court by showing that the state court's decision was "based on an unreasonable determination of the facts," but that provision does not alter the fundamental requirement that there must be a violation of federal law. Nor can a federal court, as the Seventh Circuit did here, simply point to the defendant's argument that noncompliance with state law also violates the federal Constitution. The federal court must make that determination for itself. The Court remanded to give the Seventh Circuit one more chance.

Abbot v. United States (09-479), decided together with Gould v. United States (09-7073), concern the proper reading of a 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) and its so-called "except" clause. Section 924(c) provides, in relevant part: "Except to the extent that a greater minimum sentence is otherwise provided by this subsection or by any other provision of law, any person who, during and relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime . . . uses or carries . . . or . . . possesses a firearm, shall, in addition to the punishment provided for such crime of violence or drug trafficking crime," be sentenced to a minimum of 5 years, 7 if the firearm is brandished, and 10 if the firearm is discharged. Abbott was convicted of 2 predicate drug trafficking crimes and being a felon in possession of a firearm, which triggered a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act even before taking § 924(c) into account; Gould pled guilty to a drug trafficking crime that carried a 10-year mandatory minimum before taking § 924(c) into account. In each case, the district court added 5 years to the defendant's sentence for using a firearm. On appeal, each defendant argued that he should not have received an additional 5 years under § 924(c), because he was already subject to a "greater minimum sentence" for his underlying offense.

The Court rejected the defendants' arguments. Justice Ginsburg wrote for a unanimous Court (but for Justice Kagan, who did not participate). Section 924(c)'s "except" clause, the Court determined, only bars courts from stacking multiple sentences for offending § 924(c), or "any other provision of law" that imposes punishment for conduct violating § 924(c). For example, a defendant may not be sentenced to 5 years for possessing a gun on top of 7 years for brandishing the same gun during the underlying crime. The "except" clause does not bar courts from adding a sentence for offending § 924(c) onto a sentence for the underlying crime, even if the sentence for the underlying crime is longer than the sentence for the § 924(c) offense. The defendants' contrary interpretation could result in more severe offenders receiving shorter sentences. For example, a defendant who brandished a weapon with a smaller amount of drugs might receive 12 years (a 5-year minimum for trafficking, plus 7 years for brandishing), while a defendant who brandished a weapon with a larger amount of drugs would receive only a 10-year minimum for trafficking. All parties conceded that prior to the addition of the "except" clause in 1998, § 924(c) clearly called for the imposition of additional sentences. Considering that the 1998 amendment was part of a concerted Congressional effort to make § 924(c) more severe – indeed, the bill was entitled "An Act [t]o throttle criminal use of guns" – it was unlikely that Congress intended to remove additional sentences for the worst offenders.

The Court also granted cert in two more cases last week:

In Tolentino v. New York (09-11556), the Court is asked to determine "[w]hether pre-existing identity-related governmental documents, such as motor vehicle records, obtained as the result of direct police action violative of the Fourth Amendment, are subject to the exclusionary rule."

18 U.S.C. § 1512(a)(1)(C) specifically proscribes killing with intent to "prevent the communication by any person to a law enforcement officer or judge of the United States of information relating to the commission or possible commission of a Federal offense . . . ." Fowler v. United States (10-5443) asks whether a defendant may be convicted of murder under that provision "without proof that information regarding a possible Federal crime would have been transferred from the victim to Federal law enforcement officers or judges."

We'll likely be back with new orders or opinions after the Court's next conference day on Tuesday. Until then, thanks for reading!

Kim & Jenny

From the Appellate and Complex Legal Issues Practice Group at Wiggin and Dana
For more information, contact Kim Rinehart or any other member of the Practice Group at 203-498-4400