Tag Archives: Habeas corpus opinions

New opinion — another reversal of a habeas grant

Wilkerson v. Superintendent — habeas — reversal — Krause

Just last week I wrote,

Third Circuit reversals in habeas corpus cases are mighty rare. It happened yesterday, but it was a reversal of a district court order that had granted relief. Discouraging times for habeas petitioners.

Today it happened again. The Third Circuit reversed a district court order granting habeas relief on a double-jeopardy claim. The court also affirmed denial of an Apprendi claim, holding that the claim was time-barred. The opinion did hold that the double-jeopardy claim was exhausted even the petitioner raised only the analogous state-law claim in state court.

Joining Krause were Hardiman and Stengel EDPA by designation (an unusual situation where a district judge reviews the decision of a district colleague). Arguing counsel were Maria Pulzetti of the federal defender for the petitioner and Max Kaufman of the Philadelphia DA’s office for the state.

New opinion — Third Circuit authorizes successor habeas petition raising ACCA challenge

In re: Hoffner, Jr. — habeas — Restrepo

The Third Circuit today authorized a prisoner to file a successor petition under 28 USC § 2255 (the equivalent of habeas corpus for federal prisoners) raising a claim that the Armed Career Criminal Act is unconstitutionally vague (i.e. a Johnson claim). The court emphasized that it takes a flexible, case-by-case approach to deciding when successor petitions are authorized, rejecting the more rigid approach taken by the Eighth Circuit.

I’ll go way out on a limb and predict that the government seeks rehearing.

Joining Restrepo were McKee and Ambro. Arguing counsel were Lisa Freeland for the petitioner and Robert Zauzmer for the government.

New opinions — wiping out a habeas grant and allowing discovery on the fairness of stash-house stings [updated]

The Third Circuit issued two precedential opinions yesterday, both reflecting the court’s fundamental centrism.

 

Mathias v. Superintendent — habeas corpus — reversal — Krause

Third Circuit reversals in habeas corpus cases are mighty rare. It happened yesterday, but it was a reversal of a district court order that had granted relief. Discouraging times for habeas petitioners.

The Third Circuit held that the district court erred in granting relief based on counsel’s failure to object to a faulty jury instruction involving accomplice liability. The court held that the state court’s ruling that the petitioner did not suffer prejudice was not an unreasonable application of clearly established law because two pertinent Supreme Court rulings were in tension. The court also rejected a related due process claim.

The court also held that the time-limit for cross-appealing is not jurisdictional and is waiveable under a standard set out in the opinion. It further held (as local rule 22.1(d) already provided) that petitioners need a certificate of appealability to cross-appeal, splitting with the Seventh Circuit.

Joining Krause were Fisher and Melloy CA8 by designation. Arguing counsel were Maria Pulzetti of the EDPA federal defender for the petitioner and Jennifer Andress of the Philadelphia DA’s office for the state.

UPDATE: On November 20, the court issued an amended opinion. The link at the top of this post now goes to the new opinion. The old opinion is here, and the court’s order helpfully identifying the changes is here. The heart of the change is new footnote 4.

 

US v. Washington — criminal — partial affirmance — Fuentes

This appeal arose out of a stash house reverse sting. A what? The majority opinion explains:

Developed by the ATF in the 1980s to combat a rise in professional robbery crews targeting stash houses, reverse sting operations have grown increasingly controversial over the years, even as they have grown safer and more refined. For one, they empower law enforcement to craft offenses out of whole cloth, often corresponding to statutory offense thresholds. Here, the entirely fictitious 10 kilograms of cocaine triggered a very real 20-year mandatory minimum for Washington [the defendant], contributing to a total sentence of 264 months in prison—far more than even the ringleader of the conspiracy received. For another, and as Washington claimed on multiple occasions before the District Court—and now again on appeal—people of color are allegedly swept up in the stings in disproportionate numbers.

The panel majority rejected the defendant’s argument that applying the mandatory-minimum sentence violated due process. Judge McKee dissented on this point, arguing that applying the minimums based on fictional drug amounts conjured by law enformcement was unfair, irrational, and not intended by Congress.

The panel unanimously remanded to allow the defendant to pursue discovery in support of a selective-enforcement claim, joining the Seventh Circuit to apply a lower standard than that applicable to selective prosecution claims.

Joining Fuentes was Cowen; McKee dissented in part. Arguing counsel were Mark Greenberg for the defendant and Eric Henson for the government.

Three new opinions, including an interesting actual-innocence case

Bruce v. Warden — habeas corpus — affirmance — Fisher

The Third Circuit today upheld a federal prisoner’s ability to challenge his conviction under 28 USC 2241 instead of 28 USC 2255, but on the merits held that the prisoner failed to prove his actual innocence, and thus affirmed.

On the 2241 issue, the court noted “an entrenched split among the courts of appeals regarding the extent to which a change in statutory interpretation permits a federal prisoner to resort to § 2241 for an additional round of collateral review.” (Emphasis added). The opinion notes that 10 circuits (including the Third) allow it, while the Tenth and Eleventh don’t. In a parenthetical, the opinion provocatively notes that Judge Gorsuch was the author of the 10th Circuit opinion, and it ends by noting that split causes difficulties that “will remain, at least until Congress or the Supreme Court speaks on the matter.” All that sounds a weensy bit like a nudge to grant certiorari and perhaps reverse the Third Circuit rule, but the opinion goes on to emphatically reaffirm the rightness of the circuit’s approach, and perhaps that tension explains why it took 10 months after oral argument to issue the opinion.

On the actual innocence issue, the court began by noting that this was the first time it had considered the merits of an actual innocence claim under 2241. It left open the question of what standard applies to such claims by rejecting Bruce’s claim under the more lenient standard, the Schlup/House/McQuiggan gateway standard. Applying that standard to the facts, the court rejected Bruce’s claim.

Joining Fisher were Vanaskie and Krause. Arguing counsel were Rajeev Muttreja of Jones Day for Bruce and Kevin Ritz for the government.

 

Vanderklok v. US — civil rights — reversal in part — Jordan

This appeal arose from an airport-security-screening dispute. A would-be traveler alleged that a TSA screener violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights by falsely accusing him of making bomb threats after the traveler threatened to file a complaint against the screener. The Third Circuit today held that no Bivens action for First Amendment retaliation exists against airport security screeners who retaliate against travelers for exercising their free-speech rights. As to the Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim, the court held that no interlocutory appeal was available because the defendant sought summary judgment on the merits rather than on qualified immunity.

Joining Jordan were Smith and Roth. Arguing counsel were John Connell of Archer for the TSA screener, Thomas Malone of the Malone Firm for the traveler, and Daniel Aguilar for the government as amicus.

 

M.R. v. Ridley School Dist. — civil — reversal — Krause

The introduction:

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a parent of a child with a disability can bring administrative and judicial proceedings to challenge a school district’s alleged violations of the Act, and, if the parent emerges as “a prevailing party,” the parent is then eligible for an award of attorneys’ fees. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B). This case presents the question whether a fee award is available to parents who, after unsuccessfully challenging a school district’s proposed educational placement for their child, later obtain a court order requiring the school district to reimburse them for the costs of the child’s “stay put” placement—the “then-current educational placement” in which the Act permitted the child to remain while administrative and judicial proceedings were pending. Id. § 1415(j). We answer this question in the affirmative and conclude, consistent with the Act’s text and with the opinions of this Court and the other Courts of Appeals, that a court-ordered award of retrospective and compensatory relief, even if awarded under the Act’s “stay put” provision, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j), confers “prevailing party” status. We therefore will reverse the District Court’s denial of attorneys’ fees and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Joining Krause were Vanaskie and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were Alan Yatvin of Popper & Yatvin for the appellants and John Francis Reilly of Media for the district.

New opinions — catching up on last week’s ten opinions, including another ACA blockbuster and several notable reversals

Last week I was on vacation. During slow periods it’s not all that rare for the Third Circuit to go a week without issuing a single published opinion. But July/August is never a slow period — that’s when clerkships typically end, so everyone is scrambling to clear the decks. Last week the court issued 10 precedential opinions, 5 on Friday alone.

And there were some big ones, including a hot-button Affordable Care Act case and reversals in criminal, habeas, immigration, and prisoner civil rights cases. But enough wind-up …

 

US v. Wrensford [July 31] — criminal — reversal in part — Shwartz

The Third Circuit held that a defendant was arrested for Fourth Amendment purposes when he was involuntarily taken to a police station and held in a cell. Seems obvious, but the district court ruled to the contrary. The court vacated his criminal conviction and remanded. The court affirmed a co-defendant’s convictions on various grounds.

Joining Shwartz were Greenaway and Fuentes. Arguing counsel were FPD Omodare Jupiter for the prevailing appellant, Martial Webster for the other appellant, and Rhonda Williams-Henry and David White for the government.

 

Haskell v. Superintendent [August 1] — habeas corpus — reversal — Ambro

In this significant habeas corpus opinion, the Third Circuit held that a petitioner who has established a reasonable likelihood that the prosecution’s knowing use of false evidence could have affected the outcome need not also show that the error was not harmless. (Or, for my fellow habeas nerds, once you clear Napue you don’t have to clear Brecht too.) On the merits, the court reversed the district court’s denial of relief. Appallingly, the district court had not even granted a certificate of appealability.

Joining Ambro were Vanaskie and Restrepo. Arguing counsel were AFPD Elisa Long for the appellant and Mark Richmond of the Erie DA’s office for the Commonwealth.

 

EEOC v. City of Long Branch [August 2] — civil procedure — reversal — Chagares

The Third Circuit summarized its decision vacating a district court ruling in an EEOC enforcement suit thus:

The EEOC raises two issues on appeal: (1) whether Long Branch is precluded from contesting the motion to enforce because it failed to exhaust its administrative remedies ***, and (2) whether the EEOC may disclose information from the noncharging parties’ employment and personnel records to Lt. Johnson ***. Despite the compelling nature of these issues, we will not reach them because of a procedural error committed by the District Court: the District Court erroneously treated the motion to enforce that the Magistrate Judge had reviewed as a nondispositive motion instead of a dispositive motion. This is a meaningful distinction under the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. § 631, et seq., as the categorization of motion dictates, inter alia, the level of authority with which a magistrate judge may act on a motion and the availability and standard of review afforded by the District Court and our Court.

Joining Chagares were Ambro and Fuentes. The case was decided without oral argument.

 

Ildefonso-Candelario v. AG [August 3] — immigration — reversal — Stearns

The Third Circuit held that a conviction under Pennsylvania’s obstruction-of-justice statute, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. 5101, is not categorically a crime involving moral turpitude because it sweeps in non-fraudulent conduct. The court firmly rejected the government’s request to remand without decision to let the BIA reconsider its ruling.

Joining Stearns (D. Mass., sitting by designation) were Jordan and Krause. Arguing counsel were Daniel Conklin of the Shagin Law Group for the petitioner and Rebecca Phillips for the government.

 

Blackledge v. Blackledge [August 3] — family — affirmance — Krause

The Third Circuit rejected a father’s appeal from denial of his petition alleging that the mother violated an international treaty by retaining custody of their son.

Joining Krause were Ambro and Nygaard. Arguing counsel for the father was former Fisher clerk M. Patrick Yingling of Reed Smith; Barbara Ernsberger of Behrend & Ernsberger argued for the mother. The opinion thanked the father’s counsel for accepting the court’s appointment in the case and for their “excellent briefing and argument.”

 

Millhouse v. Heath [August 4] — prisoner civil rights — reversal — Cowen

The mean-spirited Prison Litigation Reform Act contains a provision — the PLRA’s three strikes rule — that poor prisoners cannot qualify for the same reduced filing fees as any other poor litigants if they previously filed three or more prisoner suits that were deemed frivolous, because it’s so fair to punish people who are poor and lawyer-less for not accurately assessing the strength of their potential legal claims.

Last week, a partially divided Third Circuit panel held that a prisoner was entitled to file in forma pauperis despite having more than 3 prior suits dismissed as frivolous because (1) the number of PLRA strikes must be assessed as of the time the notice of appeal is filed and (2) dismissals without prejudice for failure to state a claim do not count as strikes. Judge Ambro disagreed on both points but would have reached the same result through equitable tolling.

Joining Cowen was Restrepo, with Ambro dissenting in part. Arguing counsel were Stephen Fogdall of Schnader Harrison for the prisoner and Timothy Judge for the government. The opinion thanked Fogdall and his Schnader co-counsel Emily Hanlon for their “excellent work” as pro bono counsel appointed by the court.

 

US v. Ferriero [August 4] — criminal — affirmance — Scirica

The Third Circuit affirmed the conviction and sentence of a New Jersey county politico convicted of violating the Travel Act, RICO, and the wire fraud statute by lobbying on behalf of commercial clients without disclosing his own financial interest. In a lengthy opinion, the court rejected various challenges to the convictions, including the defendant’s quite plausible-sounding argument that failing to disclose his interest cannot constitute making a false or fraudulent misrepresentation under the wire fraud statute. The court also rejected the defendant’s arguments relying on McDonnell v. United States.

Joining Scirica were Hardiman and Rosenthal SD Tex by designation. Arguing counsel were Peter Goldberger for the defendant and Bruce Keller for the government.

 

US v. Chapman [August 4] — criminal — affirmance — Greenaway

The Third Circuit held that a conviction for mailing a threat to injure constitutes a crime of violence under the Sentencing Guidelines. Judge Jordan concurred “to express dismay at the ever-expanding application of the categorical approach.”

Joining Greenaway were Jordan and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Ronald Krauss of the MDPA federal defender for the defendant and unfairly blocked Third Circuit nominee Rebecca Ross Haywood for the government.

 

In re: AE Liquidation [August 4] — civil — affirmance — Krause

The opinion’s introduction says it best:

This case arises from the bankruptcy and subsequent
closing of a jet aircraft manufacturer, and requires us to assess
that manufacturer’s obligation under the Worker Adjustment
and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, 29 U.S.C. §§
2101-2109, to give fair warning to its employees before
effecting a mass layoff. On appeal, we are asked to determine
whether a business must notify its employees of a pending
layoff once the layoff becomes probable—that is, more likely
than not—or if the mere foreseeable possibility that a layoff
may occur is enough to trigger the WARN Act’s notice
requirements. Because we conclude that a probability of
layoffs is necessary, and the manufacturer has demonstrated
that its closing was not probable until the day that it occurred,
it cannot be held liable for its failure to give its employees
requisite notice. Accordingly, we will affirm ***

Joining Krause were Fisher and Greenberg. Arguing counsel were Jack Raisner of New York for the appellants and Barry Klayman of Cozen O’Connor for the appellees.

 

Real Alternatives v. Secretary DHHS [August 4] — civil — affirmance — Rendell

A sharply split Third Circuit panel held last week that a secular anti-abortion group with no religious affiliation was not entitled to the same exemption as houses of worship from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employer-provided health insurance include contraceptive services. The court also held that employees’ religious beliefs are not substantially burdened by the ACA’s contraception mandate. The majority answered both questions “[a]fter careful review, but without any hesitation.” A petition for certiorari seems a certainty and I sure wouldn’t bet against a grant.

Joining Rendell was Greenaway. Jordan dissented as to the rejection of the employees’ claims. Both authors are at the top of their game. Arguing counsel were Matthew Bowman of Alliance Defending Freedom for the employer and employees and Joshua Salzman for the government.

New opinion — a habeas reversal based on Martinez v. Ryan

Lambert v. Warden — habeas corpus — reversal — Ambro

The Third Circuit today held that an error by a habeas petitioner’s post-conviction counsel excused the procedural default of his claim that his trial counsel was ineffective. This is the court’s third major case applying Martinez v. Ryan, following Cox v. Horn in 2014 and Bey v. Superintendent earlier this year.

The appeal arose from a joint criminal trial of two defendants. The prosecution introduced evidence that the other defendant made certain statements to his psychiatrist, and at closing the prosecutor argued that those out-of-court statements helped prove this defendant’s guilt. Trial counsel didn’t ask for a limiting instruction based on this alleged Confrontation Clause violation. PCRA counsel didn’t argue that trial counsel was ineffective, explaining in a no-merit letter that the statements were party admissions.

The Third Circuit held today that the trial-ineffectiveness claim had some merit and that PCRA counsel was ineffective for not raising it, thus excusing under Martinez the default of the trial ineffectiveness claim. The court remanded for an evidentiary hearing on trial counsel’s ineffectiveness.

Joining Ambro were Vanaskie and Scirica. Arguing counsel were Cheryl Sturm of Chadds Ford, PA, for the petitioner and Catherine Kiefer of the Philadelphia DA’s office for the Commonwealth.

New opinions — one habeas, one bankruptcy, both with appointed amicus counsel and both reversing [updated]

Vickers v. Superintendent — habeas corpus — reversal — Krause

The Third Circuit reversed a district court’s grant of habeas corpus relief, holding that trial counsel’s failure to secure an on-the-record waiver of his client’s right to a jury trial was deficient performance but that the defendant was not prejudiced given deference to state-court credibility findings. The opinion contains three other notable holdings: (1) that the state court’s ruling was not subject to 28 USC 2254(d)’s limitation on relief because it applied the wrong standard, (2) that prejudice was not presumed because the state court found that defendant had been informed of his jury-trial right, and (3) that the correct prejudice standard for cases like this is whether there was a reasonable probability that the defendant would have opted for a jury trial.

In a blistering footnote, the court catalogued the Washington County (PA) DA’s office’s “‘dereliction of duty'” during the habeas proceedings, noting that it was “deeply disturbed” and urging the office to act with “far greater diligence and professionalism.”

Joining Krause were Fisher and Melloy CA8 by designation. Arguing counsel were Jerome Moschetta for the Commonwealth and David Fine of K&L Gates as amicus counsel for the petitioner. The opinion thanked Fine and his co-counsel Nicholas Ranjan for accepting the court’s appointment pro bono and for the quality of their briefing and argument.

 

In re: Ross — bankruptcy — reversal — Vanaskie

A homeowner facing foreclosure twice filed bankruptcy petitions to stave off the sheriff’s sale of the home. After the second filing, the district court entered an injunction barring him from future bankruptcy filings without its permission. The district court did not explain its reasoning for imposing this injunction, which was broader than what the bank had requested and broader than what the same court had imposed in a related, similar case.

The Third Circuit held that the bankruptcy code does not prohibit courts from entering filing injunctions after a debtor moves for voluntary dismissal, but that the broad injunction here was an abuse of discretion, noting that abuse-of-discretion review is less deferential when the challenged ruling below was unexplained.

Joining Vanaskie were Krause and Nygaard. Arguing counsel were Charles Hartwell of Dethlefs Pykosh (the firm’s name is misspelled in the caption) for the bank and former Stapleton clerk William Burgess of Kirkland & Ellis as court-appointed amicus for the debtor. The court expressed its gratitude to amicus for “valuable assistance.”

New opinion — Third Circuit affirms in a difficult habeas case

Johnson v. Lamas — habeas corpus — affirmance — Rendell

When William Johnson was tried in Philadelphia for murder, his co-defendant refused to testify against him, so the prosecution just introduced the co-defendant’s earlier statement implicating Johnson. That violated Johnson’s Confrontation Clause right, the Third Circuit said and the Commonwealth conceded, but on Friday the court affirmed anyway because it held that it was not unreasonable for the state court to rule that the error was harmless. Actually, the state court only addressed whether the error prejudiced the defendant and could not have influenced the outcome of the case, and I’m not sure the panel was correct at fn.21 to treat that as a decision on whether state proved the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. But that’s a byzantine habeas issue and it’s not obvious whether a different analysis would have changed the outcome.

The Third Circuit also rejected Johnson’s argument that the prosecutor violated due process by insisting that the co-defendant take the stand even though the prosecutor knew he would refuse to testify. The state court had denied this claim, and the Third Circuit said: “We do not need to determine whether we owe deference to the Superior Court’s determination because we do not think the authorities Johnson relies upon clearly establish a due process violation.” I’m very skeptical that this reasoning is correct — I’m aware of no support for the idea that 2254(d)’s “clearly established” requirement still applies if the federal court does not owe deference to the state court decision, and the court does not cite any.

Rendell was joined by Fuentes and Krause. Arguing counsel were David Rudovsky of Kairys Rudovsky for Johnson and Catherine Kiefer of the Philadelphia DA’s office for the commonwealth. The argument was over a year ago.

Note: the court issued this opinion on Friday, but I was out of the office.

New opinion — a stone-crazy Philadelphia murder trial results in rare habeas reversal

McKernan v. Superintendent — habeas corpus — reversal — Roth

The Third Circuit today reversed a district court’s denial of habeas corpus relief, holding that the trial counsel provided ineffective assistance and the state court’s ruling to the contrary was unreasonable.

Today’s case arose from a late-90s Philadelphia murder trial.  Mid-trial, the judge told the victim’s family in chambers that she was very disturbed that they were criticizing her publicly and that she did not want to hear the case if they were unhappy with her. The family’s website described how the judge had been criticized by Charlton Heston as “Let ’em Loose Lisa” and “a bleeding heart judge that often sympathizes with murderers,” which the judge told the family was “a total lie.” Defense counsel was present when the judge said all this, but he advised the client not to seek the judge’s recusal. In the end the judge found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder.

In the part of the opinion likely to have the broadest significance, the court held that defendants’ right to an impartial trial extends to bench trials (trials such as this one where judges not juries are the factfinders). On the merits of McKernan’s ineffective-assistance claim, the court found that, “in the unique circumstances of this case,” counsel’s failure to seek the judge’s recusal was deficient performance because any competent attorney would have done so.

Joining Roth were Fisher and Greenaway. Arguing counsel were Maria Pulzetti of the EDPA Federal Community Defender for the petitioner and Joshua Goldwert of the Philadelphia DA’s office for the Commonwealth.

Early Reuters coverage of today’s opinion here, and Jeremy Roebuck’s Philly.com story is here.

New opinion — habeas petitioners can’t establish miscarriage of justice without proving innocence

Coleman v. Superintendent — habeas corpus — affirmance — Hardiman

The Third Circuit today affirmed a denial of habeas corpus relief, holding that the petitioner failed to make a strong enough showing of a miscarriage of justice to excuse the untimeliness of his petition. The court rejected Coleman’s argument that he could satisfy the miscarriage-of-justice standard without proving his innocence.

Joining Hardiman were McKee and Rendell. The case was decided without oral argument.

En banc court upholds habeas relief in capital case, plus two divided panels and a sentencing affirmance

Another blockbuster August day today, with a big capital-habeas en banc ruling and three panel opinions. Over 300 pages of opinion today.

Dennis v. Secretary — capital habeas corpus — affirmance — Rendell

The en banc Third Circuit today affirmed habeas corpus relief for James Dennis, holding in a landmark habeas opinion that the prosecution suppressed evidence that effectively gutted its case and that the Pa. Supreme Court unreasonably applied Brady v. Maryland when it denied relief. The 2015 panel ruling (Fisher with Smith and Chagares) had ruled for the state.

Joining Rendell were McKee, Ambro, Fuentes, Greenaway, Vanaskie, Shwartz, and Krause, and by Jordan in part. McKee concurred “to underscore the problems inherent in eyewitness testimony and the inadequacies of our standard jury instructions relating to that evidence.” Jordan concurred in part and concurred in the judgment, noting:

Every judge of our en banc Court has now concluded that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s contrary determination was not only wrong, but so obviously wrong that it cannot pass muster even under AEDPA’s highly-deferential standard of review. In other words, it is the unanimous view of this Court that any fairminded jurist must disagree with the Dennis I court’s assessment of the materiality and favorability of the Cason receipt. Yet somehow a majority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court endorsed Dennis’s conviction and death sentence. The lack of analytical rigor and attention to detail in that decision on direct appeal is all the more painful to contemplate because the proof against Dennis is far from overwhelming. He may be innocent.

Fisher dissented, joined by Smith, Chagares, and Hardiman, and Hardiman also authored a dissent that Smith and Fisher joined. Arguing counsel were Amy Rohe of Reisman Karron for Dennis and Ronald Eisenberg of the Philadelphia D.A.’s office for the state.

 

Watson v. Rozum — prisoner civil rights — reversal in part — McKee

A divided Third Circuit panel today ruled in favor of a prisoner alleging a First Amendment retaliation claim.

Joining McKee was Ambro; Ambro also concurred, explaining the court’s rejection of caselaw from the Fifth and Eighth Circuits and its disavowal of prior non-precedential circuit rulings. Hardiman dissented. Arguing counsel were Kemal Mericli of the Pa. A.G.’s office for the state and former Fisher clerk Ellen Mossman of Dechert for the prisoner.

 

NAACP v. City of Philadelphia — First Amendment — affirmance — Ambro

It’s unusual enough for the same panel to issue two precedential opinions on the same day, but it’s rare indeed for the same judge to dissent in both cases. But so it was here, where Hardiman again dissented from a McKee-Ambro majority. In this case, the majority affirmed a district court ruling that Philadelphia’s policy of banning non-commercial advertising at its airport violates the First Amendment.

Arguing counsel were Craig Gottlieb for the city and Fred Magaziner of Dechert (who clerked for Rosenn) for the challengers.

 

US v. Carter — criminal — affirmance — Shwartz

The Third Circuit affirmed a district court criminal sentence applying a sentencing enhancement for maintaining a stash house. The defendant had argued he did not maintain the stash house because he did not own or rent the house and did not pay for its operation from his own funds.

Joining Shwartz were Fuentes and Restrepo. The case was decided without oral argument.

New opinions — habeas corpus relief and three affirmances

OFI Asset Management v. Cooper Tire — civil — affirmance — Jordan

In a 51-page opinion, the Third Circuit today rejected an appellant’s challenge to the district court’s management of a complex securities-fraud class action. The court criticized the clarity appellant’s underlying complaint, then wryly observed:

Now that OFI [the plaintiff-appellant] has come to us with the same kind of broad averments that drove the District Court to demand specificity, we find ourselves more than sympathetic to that Court’s position.

The court also rejected a long list of intensely factbound substantive arguments.

Joining Jordan were Ambro and Scirica. Arguing counsel were James Harrod of Bernstein Litowitz for the appellants and Geoffrey Ritts of Jones Day for the appellees.

 

Goldman v. Citigroup Global — civil — affirmance — Jordan

The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of a securities suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments under Grable & Sons v. Darue Engineering that the court had jurisdiction despite the absence of a federal cause of action. The court refused to be bound by language in a prior precedential opinion such “a summary and unexplained jurisdictional ruling” where jurisdiction was not in dispute has no precedential effect. The court also rejected the appellants’ argument that an arbitration panel’s manifest disregard for the law created a federal-question jurisdictional hook.

Joining Jordan were McKee and Roth. Arguing counsel were Richard Gerace for the appellants and Brian Feeney of Greenberg Traurig for the appellees.

 

Dempsey v. Bucknell University — civil rights — affirmance — Krause

College student Reed Dempsey was arrested after another student accused him of assaulting her. The affidavit of probable cause accompanying the criminal complaint “recklessly omitted” certain facts. After the charges were later dropped, Dempsey brought a civil rights suit alleging that the arrest violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

Today, the Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment against Dempsey because, even considering the omitted facts, a reasonable jury could not find lack of probable cause to arrest. The court rejected Dempsey’s argument that, in analyzing a probable cause issue at summary judgment, a court must ignore unfavorable disputed facts. It held that, “when a court determines that information was asserted or omitted in an affidavit of probable cause with at least reckless disregard for the truth, it must perform a word-by-word reconstruction of the affidavit.” It ruled that information was recklessly omitted, reconstructed the affidavit to include it, and held that the any reasonable juror would find that the reconstructed affidavit established probable cause.

Joining Krause were Vanaskie and Shwartz. Arguing counsel were Dennis Boyle (formerly) of Fox Rothschild for Dempsey and James Keller of Saul Ewing for the defendants.

 

Brown v. Superintendent SCI Greene — habeas corpus — reversal — Ambro

The introduction of today’s opinion granting habeas corpus relief:

This case has a familiar cast of characters: two co-defendants, a confession, and a jury. And, for the most part, it follows a conventional storyline. In the opening chapter, one of the defendants (Miguel Garcia) in a murder case gives a confession to the police that, in addition to being self-incriminating, says that the other defendant (Antonio Lambert1) pulled the trigger. When Lambert and Garcia are jointly tried in Pennsylvania state court, the latter declines to testify, thereby depriving the former of the ability to cross-examine him about the confession. The judge therefore redacts the confession in an effort to comply with Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968). As a result, when the jury hears Garcia’s confession, Lambert’s name is replaced with terms like “the other guy.” The idea is that the inability to cross-examine Garcia is harmless if the jury has no reason to think that the confession implicates Lambert.

During closing arguments, however, there is a twist when the prosecutor unmasks Lambert and reveals to the jurors that he has been, all along, “the other guy.” Now, instead of a conclusion, we have a sequel. Based on a Sixth Amendment violation caused by the closing arguments, we conclude that Lambert is entitled to relief. We therefore remand so that the District Court can give Pennsylvania (the “Commonwealth”) the option either to retry or release him.

In holding that the Bruton error was not harmless, the court noted that the prosecution’s key witness had flaws and rejected the state’s argument that error was harmless because the jury already knew about these other flaws and believed the witness anyway.

Joining Ambro were Krause and Nygaard. Arguing counsel were Ariana Freeman of the EDPA Federal Community Defender for Brown and Susan Affronti of the Philadelphia DA for the state.

New opinion — Third Circuit affirms denial of ineffective-assistance claim where trial counsel raised the issue only in a footnote

Nguyen v. Attorney General — habeas corpus — affirmance — Greenberg

The Third Circuit today affirmed the denial of habeas corpus relief in a case where the prisoner argued his trial counsel was ineffective for raising a speedy-trial issue only in a letter-brief footnote. The court noted its intimate familiarity with the (New Jersey) state court’s procedures and its certainty that those courts would view the footnote as sufficient to preserve the legal issue, and accordingly it held that counsel’s performance was not deficient. The court also rejected the prisoner’s strained argument that the state courts had found as fact that counsel had not raised the speedy-trial issue.

The opinion’s holding and its core reasoning both seem sound, but I wonder about some of the language. The opinion says at pages 3 and 20 that it reviewed the ineffective-assistance claim through a “doubly deferential” lens. In habeas cases, this double deference refers to the interplay of (1) the Strickland ineffective-assistance standard with (2) the 28 USC 2254(d) limitation on relief for claims adjudicated on the merits in state court. But here the state court denied the claim on prejudice grounds only (see op. p. 22, which states “District Court took no position” but presumably means ‘state court took no position,’ compare p.15), while the Third Circuit denied relief on deficient-performance grounds only, so the 2254(d) limitation on relief did not apply. So the “doubly deferential” language seems out of place here and I hope it does not create confusion in future cases.

Joining Greenberg were Ambro and Jordan; Ambro also concurred separately. Arguing counsel were Jonathan Edelstein of Edelstein & Grossman for the prisoner and James McConnell for the state.

New opinion — preventing jurors from hearing the alternate perpetrator’s hearsay confessions does not warrant habeas relief

Staruh v. Superintendent — habeas corpus — affirmance — Smith

Two adults lived in the house where a three year-old died from blunt-force trauma: the victim’s mother and grandmother. The mother was the one charged with murder. On the eve of trial, after repeatedly claiming for over two years she had nothing to do with the injuries, the grandmother reportedly confessed in interviews with a defense investigator.

When the grandmother refused to repeat the confessions in court, the defense sought to tell the jury what the grandmother had said, offering it as a statement against penal interest. The court refused the request on hearsay grounds, and, knowing nothing about the grandmother’s confessions, the jury convicted the mother of murder.

In the habeas corpus appeal now before the Third Circuit, the mother argued that the court’s refusal to admit the grandmother’s confessions violated the mother’s due process right to present her defense. Today, without oral argument, the Third Circuit rejected the claim, affirming the district court’s ruling and denying habeas relief.

The court did not appear to dispute the mother’s contention that the confessions “were made before and during trial; were made on more than one occasion to a court-appointed investigator; were never repudiated; were very detailed; and were not the result of threats or inducements.” Yet it found that the confessions had “no indicia of credibility.” It explained:

Lois [the grandmother], in making the statements, was attempting to have her cake and eat it too.11 She was hoping to prevent her daughter from being convicted of murder by confessing to the crime, while at the same time avoiding criminal liability herself. Her last-minute change of heart, after she had both pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of endangering a child and disavowed any responsibility for Jordan’s death for two and a half years, further supports this view. This appears to be a “justice-subverting ploy” that provides the justification for requiring indicia of truthfulness.

In the footnote, the court noted that the defendant “appears to have been unable to obtain an affidavit from Lois reaffirming her confession . . . casting further doubt on its truthfulness.”

I question the court’s reasoning. Maybe the grandmom was lying to protect the mom. It’s possible. But it’s also possible that grandmom was the real murderer, her repeated and detailed and never-repudiated confession was the truth, and her refusal to affirm it was choosing her own freedom over the mom’s. The court’s certainty about which possibility is the truth, seemingly arrived at with no subsequent evidence or fact-finding about grandmom’s actual motivations, seems unwarranted. That seems like a choice for juries allowed to hear all the facts, not appellate courts.

Perhaps the panel meant only to say that relief was foreclosed by 2254(d)(1)’s limitation on relief, not that the claim failed as a de novo matter, but that’s not how I read the opinion.

In the opinion’s most dangerous passage, the court stated in a footnote that the grandmother’s unwillingness to testify “is extremely probative of the truth of her statements.” Read broadly, this language is nothing less than a repudiation of the penal-interest hearsay exception. The whole reason defendants like the mother seek to get in hearsay statements against penal interest is that the alternate perpetrator isn’t willing to repeat the confession in court. If the hearsay is never reliable enough when the declarant won’t testify at trial, then the penal-interest rule is an umbrella you can use only when it’s not raining. I hope that the court clarifies this critical point on rehearing or in a future case.

Joining Smith were Hardiman and Nygaard. The case was decided without oral argument.

UPDATES: I posted some further thoughts on this case here.

New opinion — Court affirms denial of habeas corpus relief

Dellavecchia v. Secretary PA DOC — habeas corpus — affirmance — Greenberg

After being arrested for murdering a man, James Dellavecchia smashed his head into the bars of his cell and was taken to the hospital. Dellavecchia was arraigned in his hospital bed and, while the arraigning police officer was there and without counsel, Dellavecchia made various admissions that the prosecution later used against him at trial. The state court found that admission of the defendant’s statements did not violate the Sixth Amendment because the statements were spontaneous and unsolicited. The district court denied Dellavecchia’s habeas petition, and today the Third Circuit affirmed, holding that the state-court ruling was not an unreasonable application of Supreme Court holdings and that, even if there were error, it would be harmless because the prosecution’s case was overwhelming.

Joining Greenberg were Jordan and Scirica. The case was decided without oral argument.