Does the deference to a trial judge’s findings, embodied in the habeas corpus statute, extend to situations where the fact finder did not directly observe an incident of allegedly inappropriate conduct by a potential juror but merely accepted the prosecutor’s account of events? Can the Federal court consider such actions by the state court trial judge as unreasonable even where the trial judge’s ultimate finding nevertheless falls within the acceptable range of what a rational court could have found given the evidence presented before it?
The Ninth Circuit recently granted criminal defendant Steven Martell Collins’ habeas corpus petition on the grounds that the prosecution unconstitutionally used a peremptory challenge to strike a potential juror on account of her race. Although the prosecutor convinced the trial judge that the dismissal was not racially motivated and was therefore acceptable, the Ninth Circuit found the trial judge’s decision to be unreasonable despite the fact that the decision was affirmed on numerous occasions throughout the state court system and at the Federal District Court. The Ninth Circuit held that, despite the statutory deference granted to the original fact-finder by 28 U.S.C. § 2254, such deference was inappropriate here. The Supreme Court will likely interpret § 2254 to determine whether the Ninth Circuit exceeded its authority when it held that the trial judge was unreasonable in accepting the prosecutor’s proffered reasons for dismissing the juror.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Does 28 U.S.C. § 2254 allow a federal habeas corpus court to reject the presumption of correctness for state fact finding, and condemn a state-court adjudication as an unreasonable determination of the facts, where a rational fact finder could have determined the facts as did the state court?
The below facts are all derived from the amended opinion of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Collins v. Rice, 365 F.3d 667, 673 (9th Cir. 2004). During the process of jury selection for Collins’s trial, the prosecutor used peremptory challenges to remove two African American women from the jury. Id. at 674. Collins objected to these dismissals as racially motivated under what is known as the Batson standard, from the 1986 Supreme Court decision in Batson vs. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). Id. Collins pursued the striking of one potential juror, Juror 016, all the way to the California Supreme Court. Id.
After the California Supreme Court denied Collins relief, he filed a habeas corpus petition in Federal Court. Id. at 676. Throughout the state court appellate system, and even in the initial review by a Federal District Court, all judges agreed that the trial judge acted reasonably when he believed the prosecutor’s reasons for striking Juror 016 from the jury pool. All noted that deference to the trial judge was appropriate, since it was the trial judge who spoke with the prosecutor and observed the witnesses prior to concluding that the prosecutor’s reasons were credible.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, determined that the trial judge acted unreasonably in believing any of the prosecutor’s reasons for striking the juror. Id. at 684. The prosecutor offered several distinguishable reasons for striking Juror 016 during voir dire and argued that these reasons alone or in concert justified removing that potential juror. Id. Those reasons included the juror’s age, her lack of ties to the community, her gender, and an apparent lack of respect for the court when answering questions during the jury selection process. Id. at 676. While the trial judge dismissed gender as an unconstitutional criteria, he was willing to “give the benefit of the doubt” to the prosecutor on the other reasons, especially the alleged act of disrespect—rolling of the eyes at the prosecutor, which the judge did not personally observe. Id. at 675.
Because some of the reasons for allowing the use of the peremptory challenge were factually incorrect, irrelevant, or not constitutionally sound, the Ninth Circuit decided that it was not reasonable for the trial judge to extend “the benefit of the doubt” to the prosecutor for the other plausible reasons regarding her decision to excuse Juror 016, especially given the trial judge’s failure to observe Juror 016’s alleged disrespectful conduct. Id. at 684. The Ninth Circuit reversed the courts below and granted the habeas petition. Id. The court noted that deference to the trial court does not equate to an inability to provide judicial relief where appropriate.
The Ninth Circuit Decision
The Ninth Circuit found that the California Court of Appeals' decision – that Collins had failed to establish purposeful discrimination in his Batson challenge – was based on an unreasonable determination of facts. Collins, 348 F.3d at 1089. The California Court of Appeals accepted two of the prosecutor's proffered race-neutral reasons for the peremptory strike of Juror 016, namely, the juror's age and demeanor. See id. at 1089. However, the Ninth Circuit concluded that neither of these race-neutral reasons was supported by the trial record. While the prosecutor indicated that Juror 016 rolled her eyes while answering questions and responded with "uh-huhs," the trial judge made no such observations. See id. at 1094. Also, while the prosecutor explained that her objection on the basis of age was based on her perception that the juror's youth would make her more sympathetic to an individual charged with drug possession, she also stated, seemingly contradictorily, that she did not mean to exclude all young people from the jury. See id. at 1091. Further, the Ninth Circuit doubted the prosecutor's credibility because those two race-neutral reasons were only part of five that the prosecutor had initially offered – the three others being marital status, lack of ties to the community, and gender. See id. at 1089. The gender reason was quickly thrown out by the trial judge as violating the Fourteenth Amendment, while the Ninth Circuit found that neither the lack of ties to the community nor marital status was reasonably related to the juror's ability to serve. See id. at 1092. This led the Ninth Circuit to conclude that the race-neutral reasons of age and demeanor served as mere pretext to an unlawful discriminatory purpose. See id.
The underlying claim in this case is Collins's challenge of the prosecutor's peremptory strike of an African-American juror, alleging that the strike was made on the basis of unlawful discrimination. While prosecutors may generally use peremptory strikes to remove potential jurors from consideration without reason, the Equal Protection Clause prohibits them from exercising such peremptories on the basis of certain prohibited factors, including race. See Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 89 (1986). Allegations that a prosecutor engaged in such unlawful discrimination can be brought in what are referred to as Batson challenges and are evaluated according to a three-step burden-shifting framework. See id. Under Batson, the defendant has the initial burden of making a prima facie claim by alleging facts from which a court can infer a discriminatory purpose. See Brief for Respondent at 13. The burden then shifts to the State to provide a permissible race-neutral reason for the peremptory challenge that is reasonably related to the case at hand. See id. If the State is able to provide such a reason, the court must then evaluate all relevant facts, including the persuasiveness of the reason offered by the state and the credibility of the prosecutor, to ultimately decide if the defendant has shown purposeful discrimination. See Miller-El v Cockrell, 537 U.S. 338 (2003).
28 U.S.C. §2254 and the Limits on Federal Courts in Habeas Review
Collins's appeal comes to the Supreme Court through the Ninth Circuit by way of a habeas petition, a secondary line of appeal in the federal courts afforded to state criminal defendants upon exhausting their direct appeals in state courts. Federal courts have only limited power to overturn state courts in habeas petitions, especially with respect to the state courts' determinations of fact. See Marshall v. Lomberger, 459 U.S. 422 (1982). The limits of federal habeas review are codified in 28 U.S.C. §2254, as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"). Subsection (d)(2) of 28 U.S.C. §2254 prevents a federal court from overturning a state court decision under habeas review unless the state decision "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." Additionally, subsection (e)(1) of 28 U.S.C. §2254 provides that a "determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct" in a habeas proceeding and that the "applicant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence."
Finding the Proper Standard Under 28 U.S.C. §2254
In Rice v. Collins, 348 F.3d 1082 (9th Cir. 2003), cert. granted, 125 S.Ct. 2989 (U.S. Jun 28, 2005), the Supreme Court will decide whether or not the Ninth Circuit overstepped its bounds in overturning the California Court of Appeals.
At the core of this case is the disagreement between the State and Collins on the intricate question of what standard applies under 28 U.S.C. §2254. The State argues that subsections (d)(2) and (e)(1) of 28 U.S.C. §2254 act "[s]eparately and together" to establish a deferential standard akin to the one applied in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979), under which the federal court would not be able to disturb state-court findings of fact if "any rational fact finder" could have concluded the same based on the trial record. See Brief for Petitioner at 20. Under this standard, the Ninth Circuit's decision will likely be overturned on the grounds that it overstepped its bounds, particularly because the California Court of Appeals decision did not likely rise to the level of being egregiously incorrect and a court reviewing a Batson challenge must defer to the trial judge's determination of the prosecutor's credibility. See Brief for Petitioner at 14.
On the other hand, Collins argues that subsections (d)(2) and (e)(1) of 28 U.S.C. §2254 are mutually exclusive and that the "clear and convincing" standard of subsection (e)(1), like the other portion of subsection (e), applies only when presenting new evidence in federal court to prove facts contrary to those on the record, which is not the case here. See Brief for Respondent at 12. Collins argues that subsection (d)(2) alone calls for the standard applied in Miller-El v. Cockrell (2003), where the Court focused on whether the state court made an unreasonable determination of facts and stated that under 28 U.S.C. §2254 a "federal court can disagree with a state court’s credibility determination and, when guided by AEDPA, conclude [that] the decision was unreasonable or that the factual premise was incorrect by clear and convincing evidence.” Collins further argues that the deferential Jackson standard only applies to the question of whether the evidence in a case was sufficient to convict a defendant and should not be relied upon in deciding the habeas petition here. See Brief for Respondent at 40. Collins argues that the "rational fact finder" standard is reserved for situations where a reviewing court must decide whether a lower decision was "erroneous" or "incorrect," and does not apply here when the reviewing court is merely testing for "reasonableness," the term plainly employed by the language of 28 U.S.C. §2254 . See id. at 40–41.
United States criminal procedure grants both the prosecutor and the accused in a criminal trial a limited number of peremptory challenges during the jury selection process (voir dire). By its very definition, a peremptory challenge requires no reason at all from the party dismissing the witness. In 1986, however, the Supreme Court ruled in Batson v. Kentuckythat a prosecutor could not use peremptory challenges solely for the purpose of removing members of a defendant’s racial group from the jury pool. 476 U.S. 79, 89 (1986).
When a criminal defendant is convicted through state courts but believes she/he has been deprived of a federally mandated right, such as the constitutional right to a jury by one’s peers as conferred by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, she/he may file a habeas corpus petition in accordance with 28 U.S. Code §2254. This procedure mandates a review of the state court’s decision by a federal court to ensure that no federal laws were broken and that the defendant’s federal rights were not violated.
Because criminal law is largely the province of the states and not the federal government, federal courts reviewing habeas corpus petitions do not overturn state convictions simply because they disagree with the state courts’ result; instead they need to find a clear violation of the defendant’s federal rights through the actions of the state courts. This is also consistent with our notion of federalism – that the federal government should not interfere unduly with the business of the states in the application of their state laws.
Similarly, federal courts are directed by the statute to defer to the state court on issues of fact when reviewing habeas corpus petitions. Whether the factual question is decided by the judge or a jury, the fact finder who observes witnesses and hears the evidence firsthand is in a better position to discern credibility than an appellate court which reviews merely the written record of the trial proceeding. Therefore, various sections of § 2254 direct federal courts to uphold the state court’s actions absent a showing of an “unreasonable determination of the facts” as demonstrated by “clear and convincing evidence” that overcomes a “presumption of correctness” granted to the fact finder. Deference to lower courts’ factual findings also serves as a form of “judicial filtering,” as many prisoners file habeas corpus claims of dubious merit that are screened out of the judicial system by the adjudicator who is best positioned to descipher the facts.
Despite these two strong reasons for deference (federalism and the nature of the fact finding process), the Supreme Court in 2005 overturned a ruling of the Fifth Circuit where that court yielded to the discretion of the trial court in Miller-El v. Dretke. 125 S. Ct. 2317. In Miller-El, the Court held that a Texas trial judge had been unreasonable in accepting the reasons given by the prosecutor for using a peremptory challenge because those reasons were inconsistent with logic and the facts of what had actually transpired during the jury selection process. Id.
While the facts in the present case are very similar to Miller-El, the reason offered by the Ninth Circuit for overturning the trial court is unique, which could be the reason the Supreme Court decided to review this case. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that, where many of the prosecutor’s proffered reasons for striking Juror 016 were not credible, the trial judge’s acceptance of remaining acceptable reason was not afforded deference, especially because the trial judge did not observe Juror 016 roll her eyes. Thus, in essence, the Ninth Circuit said it was unreasonable for the trial judge to “give the benefit of the doubt” to the prosecutor where the prosecutor’s other reasons were suspect. In doing so, the Ninth Circuit basically treated the presumption of correctness as irrelevant given the circumstances. The Supreme Court will have to decide whether the judge’s observation of the prosecutor while arguing the merits of the dismissal of Juror 016 (as opposed to directly observing the alleged disrespectful conduct itself) is sufficient to trigger the deference generally awarded to such findings of fact based on the theories of why such deference is granted. Alternatively, the Court could simply hold that the language of §2254 is sufficiently absolute to make the judges actual observations irrelevant. Such a holding would mean that a fact finder’s conclusion is awarded deference so long as it is theoretically reasonable, even if circumstances cast doubt on the reasonableness of the way in which the trial judge reached the decision.
Habeas corpus petitions are tools used frequently by criminal defendants seeking vindication. There are other types of habeas corpus petitions beyond the type created by §2254 at issue here. For example, detainees of the United States Government in the War on Terror have used habeas petitions to challenge the legality and nature of their captivity under §2241. As terrorism cases such as Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507 (2004), demonstrate, many constitutional rights of the defendant may be vindicated in a habeas corpus proceeding. As such, continuing refinements in the Supreme Court’s habeas corpus jurisdiction are both expected and welcome.
As for Petitioner Collins himself, this case is not just an academic formality. If the Supreme Court reverses the Ninth Circuit’s grant of his habeas corpus petition, Collins faces a mandatory 25 year prison term under California’s “three strikes” law. Should the Court uphold the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, Collins will get a new trial. Presumably, both the prosecutor and the trial judge would be more fastidious during jury selection in the event of a new trial.
The Court will decide what standard of review applies under 28 U.S.C. §2254, thus ultimately determining how much deference the Federal court system must grant the state courts when hearing habeas corpus petitions. The more deference accorded, the more difficult it will be for a Federal court to repair perceived errors in judgment by the state finder of fact. However, too little deference implicates the concept of federalism and would merely replace the judgment of the state judiciaries with that of the federal bench.
Written by: Craig Newton & Euwyn Poon
- LII Law about... Criminal Procedure