Murder Cases Bumped from SCOTUS Calendar

The U.S. Supreme Court had scheduled two murder cases, both involving defendants named Ramirez, for argument on November 1. Last Friday, however, the Court bumped them and scheduled arguments on the controversial Texas abortion law for that date. Yes, Virginia, there really is a Supreme Court issue more controversial than capital punishment.

Shinn v. Ramirez is a capital habeas corpus case from the Ninth Circuit. (The reversal rate on such cases, once certiorari is granted, is close to 100%. Offhand, I can’t remember the last time one was affirmed.) This case involves the question of how far a federal court can go to revive an argument that the defendant did not make in state collateral review.

As part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Congress limited bringing in new evidence that was never introduced in state court. Subsequently, the Supreme Court decided that ineffective assistance of the state collateral review lawyer would make an exception to a rule of the Court’s own creation, that failure to raise a claim in state court defaulted it in federal court as well. But can the Court’s own “equitable” rules trump a statute? Can the Court allow such a rule to bring in through the back door evidence that Congress locked out of the front door? CJLF filed a brief in the case arguing for “no” answers to these questions.

But now the case is off the calendar to be rescheduled for later in the term.

Ramirez v. Collier is the clergyman in the execution chamber case. The defense is playing whack-a-mole with last-second clergy issues. Texas previously allowed prison-employed chaplains in the execution chamber. That raised a claim of discrimination against religions for which the state employed no chaplains. Okay, said Texas, no clergy at all in the chamber. Do your last-minute counseling outside. Then the Eleventh Circuit stayed an Alabama execution where the same rule was at issue, and SCOTUS did not vacate the stay.

So now the rule is that the minister can be in the chamber but far enough away not to interfere and keeping quiet so as not to interfere with communication among those carrying out the execution. This is now claimed to be a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). (Yes, Congress really regulated zoning ordinances and prison administration in the same act.)

CJLF’s brief argues principally that when civil litigation is used to block the enforcement of a state criminal judgment, the restraint rules of the classic 1971 case of Younger v. Harris should come into play. Other than in habeas corpus (where a stay is authorized by statute), lower federal courts should not interfere with the execution of state criminal judgments except in certain extreme circumstances.

The Supreme Court took this case up but put in on a fast track for briefing and argument. Unlike the open-ended postponement of the other Ramirez case, this one is reset for only eight days later. I suspect that there is a majority to affirm the denial of relief in this case, but there were four votes to take the case up (i.e., grant certiorari). The argument will give us a better read on that. Stay tuned.

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