10 September 2009

Worst Blawg Headline of the Week

The Ninth Circuit Appeals Court Rules Against Trial Judge

-- From the Crime and Consequences Blog

To be clear, the trial judge whose ruling was reversed wasn't a party to the case.

The appeals court simply reversed one of the trial judge's decisions regarding jury instructions given to a jury deadlocked on a criminal charge in a criminal case, a type of decision that often leads to appellate review, in part, because it is hard to characterize as harmless error. The appellate court decision was a close call. The 9th Circuit's decision was made by a 2-1 margin.

These facts, suggested by the headline, make this clearly a dog bites man case. Reversing trial court decisions is the reason that appellate courts exist, and the 9th Circuit, like all appellate courts, does this hundreds, if not thousands of times each year.

The case is unusual, but the reason isn't disclosed in either the headline or the blog post. Indeed, the headline was actually deceptive. The 9th Circuit actually affirmed the decision that it was reviewing on appeal. The appeal was by the government from the ruling of a federal trial judge who granted a state criminal defendant federal habeas corpus review.

What makes this case unusual is that the case granted relief to a convicted defendant on collateral habeas corpus review of a state trial court conviction that was affirmed on direct appeal, in a non-capital case. The criminal defendant was convicted of the burglary, robbery and rape of an elderly woman and sentenced to twenty-five years to life.

As my previous posts on habeas corpus jurisprudence have noted, this almost never happens. The federal judges engaged in habeas corpus review of the state conviction, had to find, and did find, that the California "Court of Appeal’s decision upholding the instruction was an unreasonable application of established Supreme Court law." This is the moral equivalent of finding that the state court judges committed malpractice.

It also defies the stereotype, which arises mostly because habeas corpus relief is mostly granted in death penalty cases which are most common in the South, that habeas corpus remains largely a civil rights tool to reform unreconstructed Southern states (like Texas).

The rare cases when habeas corpus relief are granted are rightly the focus of interest from the Crime and Consequences blog which is a tough on crime and pro-death penalty advocacy site. In general, its authors favor reducing the availability of habeas corpus relief, mostly because of its impact in death penalty cases, but also in non-death penalty cases because in non-capital cases the authors believe that it is a remedy that imposes a burden on the criminal justice system when resources would be better spent elsewhere, and because they believe that it raises federalism concerns to have federal courts collaterally review state criminal convictions. Looking at the rare cases where relief is granted, to see what was going on in those cases, allows the authors of that blog to make a case about how worthwhile this remedy is in the rare in non-capital cases where it actually provides a criminal defendant with relief.

But, the blog failed to make this point at all, leaving it to me, someone who more often disagrees than agrees with the blog's point of view, to make it. That's what makes that post the worst blawg headline of the week.

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