Friday, June 1, 2012

Coleman v. Johnson, 132 S.Ct. 2060 (2012)

Not a good week for the 9th Circuit.  The Supreme Court summarily reversed four 9th Circuit cases on immigration.  The 9th Circuit record on immigration parallels its record on criminal cases.  The volume is so excessive the Supreme Court cannot review all 9th Circuit mistakes.

Coleman v. Johnson is not a 9th Circuit case but it sends a message to that court.  On collateral review, the 3d Circuit had reversed a Pennsylvania state court appellate decision confirming a jury trial verdict.  Defendant alleged that the evidence at trial was insufficient to convict him of murder, citing the Supreme Court case of Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979).  This venerable case reversed a conviction obtained by no supporting evidence and, according to the Supreme Court, violated due process.  The Jackson test for reversal on federal habeas corpus is nebulous at best: "only if a rational trier of fact could not have agreed with the jury." And: "whether [the finding of the jury] was so insupportable as to fall below the threshold of rationality." The 9th Circuit can easily evade that language.

In applying that test the Supreme Court in Coleman ordered federal courts on collateral review to consider the jury verdict and the state appellate court decision in addition to AEDPA.  The Court particularly cites a 9th Circuit case it reversed three times on grounds the appellate court found insufficiency of evidence as an example of an erroneous application of the Jackson test; Cavazos v. Smith, 565 U.S. 1 (2011)

Although the Jackson test is conceptual and subjective, the Supreme Court is sending a message to all circuit courts, and the 9th Circuit in particular, to strictly apply the facts of the case and the Jackson rule with deference to state courts, juries, and AEDPA.

As an added note: after the Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit in Smith for the third time, the appellate court engineered clemency for the defendant through the office of Governor Jerry Brown.  Within three weeks after the third reversal was remanded to the 9th Circuit.  

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