ACSBlog

  • 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.

  • July 5, 2017

    by Dan Froomkin

    The Supreme Court term that ended last week was fairly tame – at least by recent standards. But top Court observers on an American Constitution Society panel on Thursday said that beneath the collegiality and calm were signs of major fissures likely to deepen and become more acrimonious when the Court reconvenes in October.

    And nothing may have made that more clear than the Court's parting decision, crafting a compromise of sorts that lifted a stay on major parts of President Trump's hugely controversial travel ban.

    "It is muscular. It is the court drawing its own line – not based in statute, not based in executive order -- about how this semi-stay is going to be accomplished," said Lee Rowland, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. "I think that's an indicator that the Court is willing to wade in to some serious controversy, including making foreign policy itself."

    Paul Clement, a former solicitor general now at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, said the Court's travel ban decision was "a good way to think about the transition from this last term, which was kind of sleepy, and they decided a lot of things with eight justices, and didn't make any waves" to "a term full of blockbusters."

    And there's no question that Trump's addition to the Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch, will be a key element in that transformation.

    For now, said Tom Goldstein, the co-founder and publisher of SCOTUSblog, "I think that one of the things that's going on is what we call the left on the Court is trying to be relatively tactical and trying to accommodate what they think is the inevitable pivot of the Court still further to the right… and trying to build some sort of consensus."

  • June 30, 2017
    Guest Post

    *This piece originally appeared on The Global Legal Post's blog on June 30, 2017

    by Reuben Guttman, Partner, Guttman, Buschner, & Brooks

    Legal academics are sniffy about practitioners who teach. But, says Reuben Guttman, this outdated view does a disservice to the legal profession.

    Scholarship means academic study or achievement. It is word without rigid limitations except perhaps when it comes to law schools which more and more are interpreting the word “scholarship” to mean theoretical endeavor not directly connected to the practice of law. This may seem odd but it is quite true. Today the word "scholarship" seems, in part, used as a pretext to discriminate against those whose academic endeavours favour the actual practice of law. Surprisingly, those whose work entails writing case books, legal treatises, or teaching classes on trial advocacy, are not what law school insiders call scholars. This means they are not favoured for tenure track positions or prestigious chairs. Sometimes they are relegated to the title of "professor of practice," which means that their endeavors are so connected to actual legal work that they cannot just be known as a professor.

  • June 29, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Rachel Meeropol, Senior Staff Attorney and Associate Director of Legal Training and Education at the Center for Constitutional Rights

    Having litigated the case that would become Ziglar v. Abbasi for the last fifteen years, since the summer I graduated from law school, my first impressions of the Supreme Court’s 4-2 decision were somewhat provincial. I represent six men who were detained after 9/11 for minor immigration violations. Though there was never any reason to suspect my clients of ties to terrorism, they were beaten, harassed, kept from contacting lawyers and loved ones, denied the ability to practice their religion, deprived of sleep and held in solitary confinement until they were cleared of any potential connection to terrorism by the FBI and deported. Last week’s Supreme Court decision denying them an opportunity to sue for monetary damages against the former federal officials that designed the policies that led to their restrictive confinement marks a low point in their long struggle for justice and compensation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my first thoughts were how they would be impacted and where the case could go from here. With the benefit of a few days distance, I have forced myself to undertake the decidedly unpleasant task of considering the bigger picture: Just how badly does Justice Kennedy’s opinion eviscerate the Bivens doctrine? Spoiler alert: quite a lot.  

    Some background first: unlike constitutional violations by State officials, there is no statute that allows people to sue federal officials for damages for constitutional violations. Instead, civil rights plaintiffs have relied on a trio of Supreme Court cases, stating with Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, that implied a damages cause of action directly under the Fourth Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause and the Eighth Amendment. Since 1980 the Supreme Court has consistently rejected attempts to “expand” the Bivens doctrine to allow damage actions against federal agencies, private corporations and private actors and to limit its application where Congressional action in the field leaves no room or no need for an implied cause of action. But over the same period, the Supreme Court and the circuits assumed the availability of many other Bivens claims that met the central purpose of the doctrine: compensating victims of federal officer wrongdoing where such compensation would otherwise be unavailable, and deterring individual federal officers from future illegality. Abbasi stands in sharp contrast to these decades of precedent. 

  • 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.