Oral argument: Mar. 25, 2009
Appealed from: The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (Mar. 11, 2008)
MILITARY LAW, ALL WRITS ACT, COLLATERAL REVIEW, CORAM NOBIS
Jacob Denedo, a member of the Navy and a permanent resident of the United States, faced various criminal charges in a court-martial proceeding. Denedo pled guilty and, as part of his sentence, was discharged from the Navy. The U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Denedo's sentence, and Denedo did not seek any further review. Six years later, the government began deportation proceedings against Denedo based on his court-martial conviction. In response, Denedo petitioned for a writ of error coram nobis with the Court of Criminal Appeals. Denedo claimed ineffective assistance of counsel based on his counsel's alleged advice that he would not face deportation if he pled guilty. The Court of Criminal Appeals considered Denedo's petition under the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a). The Court of Criminal Appeals denied Denedo's petition on the merits. On appeal, the United State Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces considered and accepted Denedo's writ. The United States appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider Denedo's writ, reasoning a collateral attack on Denedo's court-martial conviction is precluded by the Uniform Code of Military Justice ("UCMJ") Article 73¸ UCMJ 10 U.S.C. § 873, and Article 76, 10 U.S.C. § 876. The Supreme Court's holding in this case will decide whether military courts of appeal have subject matter jurisdiction to consider extraordinary requests for relief under the All Writs Act, or whether they must strictly follow procedures in the UCMJ.
Whether an Article I military appellate court has jurisdiction to entertain a petition for a writ of error coram nobis filed by a former service member to review a court martial conviction that has become final under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, 10 U.S.C. 801 et seq.
Do military courts have jurisdiction over collateral appeals challenging court-martial decisions that have become final?
A few years after coming to the United States, Jacob Denedo enlisted in the Navy and soon after became a lawful permanent resident. See Denedo v. United States, 66 M.J. 114, 118 (C.A.A.F. 2008). Approximately eight years later, Denedo was charged with conspiracy, larceny, and forgery in connection with allegedly assisting a civilian in defrauding a community college. See id. Denedo, on advice of his counsel, pled guilty to reduced charges at a special court-martial proceeding. See id. The military judge presiding over the court-martial accepted Denedo's guilty pleas and sentenced him to "three months confinement, reduction to grade E-1, and a bad-conduct discharge." Id. The U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the sentence, and Denedo did not seek further judicial review. See id.
About six years after the court-martial proceedings concluded, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services initiated deportation proceedings against Denedo, based on his court-martial conviction. See Denedo, 66 M.J. at 118. In response, Denedo filed a petition with the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals for a writ of error coram nobis. See id. A writ of error coram nobis is a "a petition for extraordinary relief ...requesting collateral review of his court-martial for alleged ineffective assistance of counsel." Id. Courts can issue writs of error coram nobis under the All Writs Act ("the Act"), which states that: "all courts established by Act of Congress may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions." 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a) (2000). Denedo claimed that the writ should be granted because "he specifically told his counsel during plea negotiations that ‘his primary concern and objective' was ‘to avoid the risk of deportation' [and] that his counsel had assured him that ‘if he agreed to plead guilty at a special-court-martial he would avoid any risk of deportation.'" Denedo, 66 M.J. at 118.
In response, the United States filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that the Court of Criminal Appeals lacked jurisdiction to consider Denedo's writ, because Article 76 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice ("UCMJ") regards "sentences by courts-martial following approval, review, or affirmation . . . [as] final and conclusive." See id. (quoting Article 76, UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. § 876 (2000)). The court denied the motion to dismiss, and subsequently considered and denied Denedo's petition for extraordinary relief. See id. at 119.
Denedo appealed to the United State Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and the United States reiterated it assertion that the court lacked jurisdiction and also asserted that Denedo "had been provided with effective assistance of counsel at his court-martial." Denedo, 66 M.J. at 119. The court found that Denedo's writ petition met both requirements of the Act. See id. at 126. First, the court noted that Denedo's court-martial was within the subject matter jurisdiction of the military justice system and the statutory jurisdiction of the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals. See id. Second, the court noted that the writ was "necessary or appropriate" because it involved a fundamental right, "the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel," and because there is no other remedy available to adequately correct the alleged error. Id. at 126. The court then remanded Denedo's petition to the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals for further factual investigation, and an eventual decision on the merits of the petition. See id. at 130.
The United States appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari on the question of whether a military appellate court had jurisdiction to consider a collateral attack on a court-martial conviction that has become final under the UCMJ.
The All Writs Act ("the Act") permits all courts established by Act of Congress to issue all writs deemed "necessary or appropriate . . . in aid of" the court's existing jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, acting under authority of the Act, granted Respondent Jacob Denedo a writ of error coram nobis, which requires a court to collaterally review Denedo's previous court-martial conviction. See Denedo v. United States, 66 M.J. 114, 126 (C.A.A.F. 2008). Petitioner United States argues that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider the writ petition, and that the collateral attack on Denedo's court-martial conviction was precluded by Article 76 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice ("UCMJ"), which specifies when military court decisions are final. See Brief for Petitioner the United States at 19-23; UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. § 876 (2000). Denedo contends that his writ petition meets the threshold requirements of the Act, and that Article 76 does not bar the court from considering the petition. See Brief for Respondent Jacob Denedo at 38-44.
The United States argues that the writ of error coram nobis is "fundamentally incompatible with [the] military justice system." Brief for Petitioner at 38. It notes that this system "emphasizes finality in order to install discipline." Id. Furthermore, they insist that Article 73 of the UCMJ provides procedures to petition for a new trial that "serve as a substitute for coram nobis relief" and that "Congress imposed a two-year time limit on the submission of such petitions to vindicate the strong interest in finality." Id.; UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. § 873. The United States believes that allowing petitions for coram nobis, outside of this congressionally imposed time limit, "frustrates that important legislative objective." Id.
A group of Former Judge Advocates General, Military Judges, and Senior Military Lawyers ("Military Lawyers"), argue that "[t]here can be no more basic requirement of a legitimate judicial system than the need to reach a just result." Brief of Amicus Curiae Former Judge Advocates General, Military Judges, and Senior Military Lawyers ("Military Lawyers") in Support of Respondent at 9-10. This requirement, they argue, is especially vital when there is "the recognition of both the possibility of error and the need to correct it," which the Military Lawyers claim is "[t]he very purpose of appellate courts." Id. at 10.
The United States, though, is concerned that allowing such writs would have "the practical effect of diverting the limited resources of the military justice system from its intended role of administering justice, fostering discipline, and maintaining readiness within the armed forces." Brief for Petitioner at 39. This is so, according to the United States, because, the acceptance of such writs would involve evidentiary hearings which would require participants from the military and force them to devote their time to investigating the facts of old, final, convictions, rather than to their regular duties. See id. Furthermore, the United States claims that even if an evidentiary hearing is not held, "the government likely would be required not only to appoint counsel to represent its interests but also to appoint defense counsel at its expense to represent a now civilian petitioner" who would have seemingly no time limit in which to file such an appeal. Id.
The Military Lawyers, however, dismiss the United States' concerns that the military appellate courts are "out of control [and] in need of chastisement." Brief of Military Lawyers at 18. Rather, they say, the military appellate courts "have taken seriously their obligations . . . to achieve justice through the policing and correction of errors." Id. Furthermore, they note that leading commentators have concluded that just because military appellate courts can grant extraordinary relief, "does not mean that it will grant them" and in fact, "[m]ost petitions are unsuccessful.'" Id. The Military Lawyers also argue that history does not support the United States' concern that granting writs of error coram nobis would unduly burden judicial resources; and that the military appellate courts have never complained about the burden, and have rarely granted such extraordinary relief. See id. at 22. Moreover, they believe that "[e]ven if such proceedings did constitute a substantial portion of the court's work," the increased workload "pales beside the value of rendering judgments free of Constitutional error." Id.
The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether a military appellate court has subject matter jurisdiction to consider a petitioner for a writ of error coram nobis, under the purview of the Act, or whether the consideration of such extraordinary relief is prohibited when the matter is otherwise considered final under the UCMJ. The Court may balance the interests of finality and stability in the military justice system against the interests of correcting error and administrating justice, while also taking considering of Congressional intent in the All Writs Act and UCMJ in deciding this case.
In 2006, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services initiated removal proceedings against Respondent Jacob Denedo based upon his court-martial conviction for larceny in 1998. See Brief for Respondent Jacob Denedo at 2. After his court-martial conviction became final, and as a last avenue of relief, Denedo petitioned the court for a writ of error coram nobis, arguing that he relied on erroneous legal advice when he decided to enter a guilty plea in the military court system. See id. at 3. A writ of error coram nobis requests that the court that imposed a judgment consider exception circumstances, such as new facts or legal developments that may change the result, and permits a continuation of litigation after final judgment and opportunities for appeal have been exhausted. See Denedo v. United States, 66 M.J. 114, 125-26 (C.A.A.F. 2008). The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ("CAAF") granted Denedo's petition for a writ of error coram nobis. See id. at 121. A writ of coram nobis is a collateral attack on an otherwise final judgment. See id. In contrast to an appeal, it is a new lawsuit which challenges some aspect of the first case whose judgment has become final. See id The United States appealed CAAF's decision to the grant the writ to the Supreme Court, arguing that the CAAF lacked jurisdiction to hear a petition for a writ of coram nobis. See Docket 08-267.
Does Goldsmith Foreclose all Forms of Collateral Review by Military Courts?
The CAAF held that a military appellate court has jurisdiction to collaterally review court-martial decisions that have become final under the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. 1651 ("the Act"). See Brief for Petitioner the United States at 7. The United States argues that the CAAF did not have jurisdiction to entertain Denedo's writ of coram nobis because it conflicts with the Supreme Court's decision in Clinton v. Goldsmith. See id. at 12-13. In Clinton v. Goldsmith, the Supreme Court recognized that the Act does not give the CAAF the authority to oversee all matters dealing with criminal judgments it once affirmed. See id. at 7 (citing Clinton v. Goldsmith, 526 U.S. 529, 536 (1999)). Furthermore, the United States notes that Goldsmith determined that the CAAF does not maintain "continuing jurisdiction"-jurisdiction over all legal developments and issues that may arise subsequent to a holding in a case that had initially fallen under military jurisdiction. See id. at 14-15.
Denedo argues a correct reading of Goldsmith is that the CAAF does not have continuing jurisdiction over everything related to military court judgments, and that the United States distorts the holding of Goldsmith by interpreting it to mean that the CAAF does not have continuing jurisdiction over anything related to military court judgments. See Brief for Respondent at 17. Denedo argues that when the Supreme Court reviewed the decision of the CAAF in Goldsmith, it did so because the issue on review was an only an administrative action-an action which never would have fallen under the CAAF's jurisdiction in the first place. See id. at 15. Denedo claims his petition is different because he is challenging his conviction and guilty plea-the very substance of the court-martial itself-not a peripheral matter like an administrative action that the CAAF did not have jurisdiction over in the first place. See id. at 15.
How Should the Supreme Court Interpret Provisions Providing for Finality of Courts-Martial Decisions in the Uniform Code of Military Justice?
The United States also argues that military courts lack jurisdiction under the Uniform Code of Military Justice ("UCMJ") to hear collateral challenges to the merits of final court-martial judgments where all potential avenues of direct appeal of the judgment itself have been exhausted. See Brief for Petitioner at 16. The United States argues that while Articles 66 and 67 of the UCMJ create a framework for direct appellate review of court-martial judgments in military appellate courts, Article 76 establishes that once punishment is imposed, the decisions of a court-martial are necessarily final, although it is possible to file a collateral appeal for a two year period after the final judgment has been entered. See id. at 17-18. Because of this limitation, the United States claims that the legislative history behind Article 76 establishes that Congress intended for the judgments of courts-martial to be final and incapable of revocation after the two-year period for collateral review has expired, unless the review is by a federal court. See id. at 24-25. The United States notes that the Supreme Court has recognized that Article 76 marked the "terminal point" for proceedings within the court-martial system. Id. at 39 (citing Schlesigner v. Councilman, 420 U.S. 738, 750 (1975)).
Denedo argues that Article 76 does not foreclose his coram nobis petition in a military court, and that the CAAF's interpretation of Article 76 to permit collateral review after a two-year period is supported by precedent. See Brief for Respondent at 38. Denedo counters that Schlesinger only articulates that Article 76 "defines the point at which military court judgments become final and requires they be given res judicata effect," and argues the decision has no implications for collateral review such as the type requested in Denedo's petition. See id. at 39-40 (citing Schlesinger, 420 U.S. at 749). Denedo points out that Schelsinger favorably cites to a landmark decision by the CAAF which held that the CAAF had the jurisdiction to issue coram nobis relief after a decision had become final. See id. at 42 (citing United States v. Frischholz, 16 C.M.A. 150(1966)). Denedo also notes that absent a "heightened showing" of congressional intent, statutes should never be interpreted to bar a forum from hearing constitutional claims. See id. at 38.
Are Previously Recognized Circumstances Where the All Writs Act has been Invoked in Aid of Military Court Jurisdiction Exceptions to the Rule, or Examples of Favorable Precedent?
The United States concedes there are limited circumstances in which the All Writs Act could be invoked in aid of military court jurisdiction. See Brief for Petitioner at 27. However, it argues these situations are limited to emergency writs of habeas corpus, where the decisions could be in aid of future appeals within the military justice system. See id. at 27. The United States argues that Denedo's situation is different, because the decision in his case is final, and there is no possibility of future appellate decisions to be aided by any potential favorable decisions resulting from his collateral appeal. See id.
Denedo argues the United States' concession that there have been occasions where the Act was properly invoked "in aid of the [military] court's jurisdiction" proves the weakness of its argument. See Brief for Respondent at 18-19. Rather than distinguish these decisions by claiming they could be used to assist further adjudication of non-final military judgments, Denedo sees these cases of examples of how it is "established" that the CAAF has authority to issue post-final judgment coram nobis relief to correct errors when the errors are "of the most fundamental character." See id. at 19 (citing United States v. Morgan, 346 U.S. 502, 509 (1954); United States v. Mayer, 235 U.S. 55, 69 (1914)).
Implications of Military Courts Continuing to Exercise Over Individuals Discharged from Military Service
The United States also argues that, because the CAAF is a part of the court-martial system, its appellate jurisdiction can not extend to Denedo's petition because he had been officially discharged from the military. See Brief for Petitioner at 29. The United States contends that by accepting the petition for a writ of coram nobis, the CAAF set a precedent for accepting collateral challenges that threaten to divert limited resources from the military justice system's core task of adjudicating courts-martial and direct appeals. See id. at 39. The United States argues that diversion of these resources to collateral appeals would impair the military justice system's ability to provide an efficient venue for the maintenance of discipline and justice in the military. See id.
Denedo counters that finding he is no longer eligible to have his appeal of a court-martial heard in a military court following discharge would upset decades worth of military jurisprudence. See Brief for Respondent at 22-23. Denedo argues that it has long been acknowledged in military courts that "when court-martial jurisdiction has been invoked properly at the time of trial, the jurisdiction of the Court of Criminal Appeals to review the case does not depend on whether a person remains in the Armed Forces at the time of such review." See id. (citing Denedo v. United States, 66 M.J. 114, 125 (C.A.A.F. 2008)). Denedo also contends that the United States' efficiency arguments are unfounded, since petitions of coram nobis have been available for decades in military courts. See id. at 36. Denedo points out that despite the availability of this method of collateral relief, these cases have never amounted to a significant number that would affect the efficiency of the military justice system-in the past decade there have been only ten coram nobis petitions and 176 general writ appeals. See id.
The United States challenges the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces over collateral appeals of final courts-martial decisions. The United States argues that, in Clinton v. Goldsmith, 526 U.S. 529 (1999), the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that the All Writs Act did not grant jurisdiction to military courts over all past decisions they had once affirmed, and that Article 76 of the UCMJ articulates that courts-martial decided under the military justice system are necessarily final. The United States also argues that entertaining collateral appeals in military courts would distract the limited resources of the military justice system from its primary role as arbiter of discipline for the U.S. Military. Denedo argues that Goldsmith speaks only to administrative decisions, and not every form of collateral review. He further contends that Article 76 of the UCMJ speaks to finality for purposes of res judicata only, and that the military courts have long held that collateral relief is available after a decision has become final. According to Denedo, writs for collateral relief are available to appeal court-martial decisions to correct fundamental errors. The Court's decision in this case will demonstrate whether the Court wishes to trend towards expanding or curtailing the scope of the military justice system. By limiting the types of relief available for an erroneous court-martial judgment, a decision for the United States would result in a more limited military justice system, fined-tuned for efficient and swift disciplinary action within the military. A decision for Denedo would result in the development of a military justice system capable of providing complete relief for matters once properly under its jurisdiction, akin to a civilian court.
Edited by: Lauren Buechner
- Explanation of Writs and Collateral Attack
- About Military Justice, Military Law, and Military Legislation