In re: Commonwealth’s Motion to Appoint Counsel Against or Directed to Defender Association of Philadelphia — civil procedure — consolidated cases: affirming some, reversing some — Fuentes
The Third Circuit today rejected the Philadelphia D.A.’s effort to block the Capital Habeas Unit of the Federal Community Defender in Philadelphia (“the CHU”) from representing the CHU’s capital clients in state court. It is a significant win for the CHU and for Pennsylvania’s death-row inmates.
[Full disclosure: I was an attorney in the Philadelphia CHU before opening my current practice, and I continue to represent capital inmates in PA.]
The CHU’s basic mission is to represent capital clients in federal habeas corpus litigation in federal court. In theory, habeas litigation starts after state-court litigation is all over, but in practice it is common for federal habeas litigants to return to state court to exhaust issues that were missed earlier. When federal habeas petitioners return to state court to exhaust their federal claims, the CHU continues to represent them.
And the CHU’s representation has been uniquely effective — PA has a big death row, but not a single capital inmate has been executed against his will since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. (Three inmates have been executed who dropped their appeals and volunteered for execution.) And that drives some prosecutors bananas.
Those prosecutors (along with recently retired PA Supreme Court Chief Justice Castille) have gone to war to try to block the Philly CHU from appearing in state court. The latest battle in that war is this case. The Commonwealth and various counties asked state judges to block the CHU from representing their clients in state court. The CHU — represented by Wilmer and Pepper Hamilton — fought back, removing the 7 cases to federal court and then asking the federal courts to dismiss. The district courts split.
Today, a unanimous panel held that the CHU’s removal to federal court was proper, that the prosecutors’ efforts to disqualify the CHU were pre-empted by federal law, and that the CHU was entitled to dismissal. If the Commonwealth doesn’t seek cert I’ll eat my keyboard.
Joining Fuentes were McKee and Greenaway. McKee also concurred separately. Arguing counsel were Hugh Burns of the Philadelphia D.A. for the Commonwealth and Paul Wolfson of Wilmer for the CHU.
McKee’s concurrence begins:
Although it does not alter our legal analysis of the issues before us, it is difficult not to wonder why the Commonwealth is attempting to bar concededly qualified defense attorneys from representing condemned indigent petitioners in state court. A victory by the Commonwealth in this suit would not resolve the legal claims of these capital habeas petitioners. Rather, it would merely mean that various cash-strapped communities would have to shoulder the cost of paying private defense counsel to represent these same petitioners, or that local pro bono attorneys would have to take on an additional burden. And it would surely further delay the ultimate resolution of the petitioners’ underlying claims.
Though this dispute has been cloaked in claims of state authority and appeals to principles of federalism, I am unfortunately forced to conclude that this suit actually arises out of simple animosity or a difference in opinion regarding how capital cases should be litigated. Given the costs of capital litigation and the very real stakes for the petitioners in these cases, it is extremely regrettable that this debate has now played out in our judicial forum.
An extraordinary case.
Wolfe v. Allstate Property — insurance — partial reversal — Rendell
The Third Circuit today decided an interesting appeal involving insurance coverage of punitive damages. Under Pennsylvania law, a person cannot insure herself against punitive damages. Here, a person insured by Allstate got drunk rear-ended Wolfe. Wolfe sued, and Allstate made a low settlement offer. At trial, the jury awarded compensatory damages (which Allstate paid) and $50,000 punitive damages (which only the insured owed because the policy did not cover punitive damages). Wolfe agreed not to collect the punitive damages from the insured, and in exchange the insured assigned his rights against Allstate to Wolfe.
Wolfe then sued Allstate for breach of contract and bad faith. The gist of the suit was that Allstate’s lowball settlement offer prevented settlement and therefore wrongly exposed the insured to a punitive-damages judgment. After a trial, the jury awarded Wolfe $50,000 in punitive damages.
Today, the Third Circuit vacated the punitive damages award, predictively applying Pennsylvania law to hold that punitive damages awarded in an earlier personal-injury suit may not later be recovered in a breach-of-contract or bad-faith suit against the insurer.