US Supreme Court Reverses 9th Circuit and 11th Circuit in Per Curiam Opinions

Kernan v. Cuero (No. 16-1468)

Here, the Defendant was charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor, and he entered a guilty plea to both felonies. After the guilty plea proceeding, but before the Defendant had been sentenced, the prosecutor moved to amend the criminal complaint to reflect that the Defendant had two prior felonies, which gave rise to additional sentencing exposure (altering his exposure from a maximum of 172 months to a minimum term of 300 months). The Defendant objected, and the trial court granted the prosecutor’s motion, and allowed the Defendant to withdraw his guilty plea. The Defendant subsequently entered a guilty plea to the new complaint, and his claims of error did not prevail during his state direct appeal and habeas proceedings.

On federal habeas review, the Ninth Circuit applied principles of contract law to conclude that the Defendant was entitled to specific performance of the agreed-upon 172 maximum sentencing range. In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court now reverses, expressing skepticism that the Ninth Circuit’s reading of the law is correct. However, the Supreme Court sets aside any dispute over interpretation, and falls back on the highly deferential standard that applies on habeas review, concluding that the trial court’s decision was not “contrary to, or involv[ing] an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1).

Dunn v. Madison (No. 17-193)

An Alabama jury found Madison guilty of capital murder, and he was sentenced to death. In 2016, as Madison’s execution neared, he petitioned the trial court for a suspension of his death sentence. He argued that, due to several recent strokes, he has become incompetent to be executed. The court held a hearing to receive testimony from two psychologists who had examined Madison and prepared reports concerning his competence. After hearing testimony from those experts which included, inter alia, Madison’s claim that he did not remember the murder or his trial, the trial court denied Madison’s petition.

On federal habeas review of that order, the Eleventh Circuit reversed,  reasoning that given the undisputed fact that Madison has no memory of his capital offense, it follows that he “does not rationally understand the connection between his crime and his execution.” On that basis, the Eleventh Circuit held that the trial court’s conclusion that Madison is competent to be executed was “plainly unreasonable.”

The Supreme Court’s per curiam opinion reverses the Eleventh Circuit, once again pointing to the deferential standard applied on federal habeas review.

In short, the state court’s determinations of law and fact were not “so lacking in justification” as to give rise to error “beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Richter, supra, at 103. Under that deferential standard, Madison’s claim to federal habeas relief must fail.

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