Brandon L. Garrett

  • July 5, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law and Lee Kovarsky, Professor of Law University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Professors Garrett and Kovarsky co-author a habeas corpus casebook, Federal Habeas Corpus: Executive Detention and Post-conviction Litigation, published by Foundation Press. 

    This week, in Davila v. Davis, the Supreme Court blocked a promising avenue for criminal defendants to enforce their rights to counsel. After Davila, when a state habeas lawyer forfeits an argument that an inmate was deprived of the constitutional right to appellate counsel, the inmate is out of luck. The holding came in a death penalty case, but the rule applies against noncapital defendants too.

    The fact pattern was familiar: trial counsel objected to an unlawful jury instruction, but appellate and state habeas lawyers ignored the claim. And the instructional error was really important, because it likely allowed Davila to be convicted of capital murder based on insufficient evidence of intent. Texas permits the death penalty to be imposed for multiple intentional killings, and has a transferred intent rule providing that, in situations where someone trying to murder one person kills another, the killing is still “intentional.” Erick Davila killed two people, but the evidence strongly suggested that he had tried to kill only one person—who was not a victim. Davila means that, had the scenario involved trial counsel’s failure to challenge the instruction rather than appellate counsel’s failure to appeal the issue, the claim could be revived in federal court. But because appellate counsel made the mistake, it cannot.

    What a mess.

  • June 29, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law

    Last week, the Supreme Court at long last ruled on the case of James McWilliams, a man sentenced to death thirty-one years ago in Alabama, without any assistance of a mental health expert, despite evidence that he was psychotic and had organic brain damage. His lawyers argued he had no way to show the jury he did not deserve the death penalty without his own medical expert. The Justices agreed.

    The ruling may impact death penalty cases around the country, where mental health evidence is often central. But the ripple effects may be felt across our entire criminal justice system, where as a shocking federal report highlighted last week, vast numbers of people in our jails and prisons have serious mental health issues.

    As a fundamental matter of due process, the Justices said in McWilliams’ case, the judge must give a defendant, who cannot afford one, a mental health expert to effectively “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” The Court also emphasized that the simplest way to be sure the defendant has a fair trial is to provide a qualified expert.  

    Instead, what McWilliams received was a “Lunacy Commission”---yes that was what it was called in Alabama---with three experts who readily concluded he was sane and had no relevant mental health problems worth telling the jury about. One government expert did note he had “genuine neuropsychological problems” and records showed he was being given several psychotropic medications in jail, including anti-psychotics. The defense lawyer asked repeatedly for an expert to examine those records and examine McWilliams. The trial judge always refused. 

  • February 9, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law

    Someone please give the new administration and its lawyers a pile of pocket constitutions. With a straight face, apparently, government lawyers argued earlier this week that the Trump executive order on immigration and refugees could not even be reviewed in the courts. But because the executive order violates the constitution so blatantly, yesterday the Ninth Circuit delivered a stinging blow to the administration. 

    In their unanimous opinion, the Ninth Circuit highlighted how totally unsupported the government position was---there was simply “no precedent” that such an order would be “unreviewable” by the courts. The very notion runs “contrary to the fundamental structure of our democracy.”  In other words, the administration lost big.

    It was surprising that in its papers, the government cited Boumediene v. Bush, the 2008 decision holding that habeas corpus offers rights to Guantanamo Bay detainees. This was another bumbling move. The Boumediene decision was front and center in the Ninth Circuit's decision.

    Boumediene was the ruling that once and for all undid President George W. Bush’s effort to make “unreviewable” the cases of the people detailed at Guantanamo Bay. In Boumediene, the Supreme Court emphasized: "Where a person is detained by executive order, rather than, say, after being tried and convicted in a court,” the need for judicial review “is most pressing."  

  • July 2, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Roy L. and Rosamund Woodruff Morgan Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law

    Now a corporation can have sincere religious beliefs of legal significance.  Was yesterday’s long-awaited ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, a “narrow” ruling?  The Supreme Court majority did suggest that perhaps just “closely-held” for-profit companies, as believers, would be exempt from contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act of 2010. And the Court said it would not address whether a company could have First Amendment free exercise rights.  Was that notable restraint?  Even if so, the Court utterly lacked restraint in silently dodging a larger constitutional question: whether a company has standing under Article III of the Constitution to sue based on the religious beliefs of its separate owners.  

    Article III of the Constitution requires that there be a “Case or Controversy” and that a plaintiff suffer a “concrete injury” in order to sue.  To be sure, the parties did not push the issue, although lower courts considered and bitterly divided over the question.  None other than John G. Roberts, as a practicing lawyer, pointed out that just because Congress passes a law entitling someone to sue, does not mean they can constitutionally sue absent a concrete injury; he then called it a crucial principle of “judicial restraint.”  And yet in Hobby Lobby, the Court never directly addressed Article III standing.  The Court suggested that since the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993, used the word “person,” and that the federal “Dictionary Act” statute defines persons to include all manner of corporations, this was somehow enough.  Just saying that a corporation is a “person” though is not enough to allow it to sue on behalf of the beliefs of others.  

    After all, corporate persons have “no beliefs,” as Justice John Paul Stevens put it well, to no avail, in his dissent in Citizens United.  The best Justice Samuel Alito could come up with in the majority opinion in Hobby Lobby was a shaky 1961 decision including individual sole proprietor merchants – who all lost their religious exercise claim because the Court said it was not enough that a law made things “more expensive” for them.  As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it in her dissent, there is no discussion or suggestion in that case or in a similar 1961 case, that corporations have standing; “the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities.”  

  • March 26, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Roy L. and Rosamond Woodruff Morgan Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law. Since the 2011 publication of Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, Professor Garrett has written widely on issues of criminal procedure, scientific evidence, corporate crime, and the law. This fall, Harvard University Press will publish his new book, Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise with Corporations.

    Yesterday the Supreme Court heard arguments in the long awaited cases of for-profit corporations arguing that Obamacare's contraception mandate endangers their constitutional and statutory religious exercise rights.  Both Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., a national arts and crafts store chain, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a small kitchen cabinet maker, argued that they should be exempt from the health insurance regulations due to not just their owners’ beliefs, but their corporate consciences. Rather than focus on whether a company is a "person" that "has" a statutory or constitutional right to free exercise of religion, the Justices could have pushed harder on a constitutional question that comes first: whether the lawsuit even belongs in a federal court.

    During the arguments, Justice Elena Kagan noted: “I'm not sure I understand it as a threshold claim that . . . the claim is not recognizable at all.” And Justice Anthony Kennedy asked: “You say profit corporations just don't have any standing to vindicate the religious rights of their shareholders and owners.” Does Hobby Lobby have standing to sue?  For a federal judge to hear a case, Article III of the Constitution requires there to be a “Case or Controversy.” The Supreme Court has interpreted the requirement to mean that a plaintiff must suffer a "concrete injury" to its own interests – and not those of others – in order to sue. The Court has kicked out cases holding that a "mere interest in a problem" was not concrete enough. The Court has only in unusual cases allowed a third-party to sue on behalf of another, like an employee, owner, or customer. 

    These companies say that they suffer direct harm: the contraception mandate costs them money. That is what the Tenth Circuit in Hobby Lobby briefly noted: the companies “face an imminent loss of money, traceable to the contraceptive-coverage requirement.” But even if that is true (which was the subject of tough questions at the arguments), paying that money does not directly affect any individual’s ability to freely exercise religion. Only the employees and officers can directly exercise their individual religious beliefs. And they are not the ones paying to comply with the regulations. They are separate from the company.