Does Arizona’s requirement of a “significant change in law” before filing a petition for postconviction relief prevent the United States Supreme Court from reviewing the Arizona Supreme Court’s interpretation of federal law?
This case asks the Supreme Court to consider whether an Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure, which only allows postconviction relief if there has been a significant change in law to make it an adequate and independent state-law ground for the judgment, prevents federal review. Petitioner John Montenegro Cruz claims that the rule cannot apply because it conflicts with the Supreme Court’s precedent requiring the application of settled rules of constitutional law on postconviction review. Cruz also asserts that the rule requires consideration of federal law, and thus that the Supreme Court may review determinations made under it for consistency with federal law. Respondent, the state of Arizona, argues that its Rule prevents federal review because it is premised on a matter of state law, rather than federal law. Arizona asserts that its rule only regulates when a claim may be brought, not the rule to be applied when evaluating the claim.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the Arizona Supreme Court’s holding that Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1 (g) precluded post-conviction relief is an adequate and independent state-law ground for the judgment.
In 2005, John Montenegro Cruz was convicted of first degree murder for killing a police officer and was sentenced to death in a jury trial. State v. Cruz at 992. During Cruz’s trial, he requested to inform the jury that he would be ineligible for parole if given a life sentence. See Brief for Petitioner, John Montenegro Cruz at 9. If the jury had known this, they may have been less inclined to impose the death penalty, as they would know he could never be released from prison. Id. The judge denied this request. Id. After his conviction was affirmed on appeal, Cruz filed a petition for postconviction relief in 2012, which was denied review, and in 2014 he initiated federal habeas proceedings that are ongoing. Cruz at 992.
Later, Cruz filed another petition for postconviction relief through collateral review, a type of appeal outside of the typical direct appeal process, under Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g), on a matter he could have raised in an earlier proceeding if “there has been a significant change in the law that, if applicable to the defendant's case, would probably overturn the defendant's judgment or sentence.” Id. at 992, 994. Cruz maintains that the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Lynch v. Arizona is a significant change in law. Id. at 992. In Lynch, the Supreme Court said that Arizona misapplied a previous case, Simmons v. South Carolina, which held that “where the defendant’s future dangerousness is at issue, and state law prohibits the defendant’s release on parole, due process requires that the sentencing jury be informed that the defendant is parole ineligible.” Id. at 993.
Following Simmons, Arizona still declined to inform juries of a defendant’s ineligibility for parole, because even though state law prohibited the defendant’s release on parole, there was still the possibility that the defendant could be released if the legislature changes the law in the future or if the defendant is granted executive clemency. Brief for Petitioner at 8. In Lynch, the Supreme Court rejected this interpretation of Simmons and held that the jury should be informed of a defendant’s ineligibility for parole in sentencing proceedings in Arizona. Cruz at 992.
The Arizona Supreme Court held that Cruz is not eligible for relief under Rule 32.1(g)’s significant change in the law requirement. Id. at 995. The court reasoned that the law itself had not changed since Cruz’s trial, as Simmons was decided before Cruz’s trial and Lynch was just a change in the application of Simmons. Id. Given 32.1(g) did not apply, the court declined to reach the issue of whether Lynch would apply retroactively, or would probably overturn Cruz’s sentence under the rule. Id. The United States Supreme Court partially granted Cruz’s petition for certiorari on March 28, 2022 to decide whether the Arizona Supreme Court’s holding that 32.1(g) precludes postconviction relief is an adequate and independent state-law ground for the judgment. Supreme Court Order at 1.
COMPATIBILITY WITH FEDERAL LAW
Cruz argues that Rule 32.1(g) cannot apply because it conflicts with federal law. Brief for Petitioner, John Montenegro Cruz at 18. Cruz argues that, because Lynch merely applied Simmons, federal law required Arizona to apply Lynch to Cruz’s postconviction proceedings. Id. at 21–22. The Supremacy Clause, Cruz contends, prohibits state courts from applying state laws contrary to federal law. Id. at 18. Cruz maintains that, under Teague v. Lane, courts must apply constitutional rules of criminal procedure as they existed at the time a conviction becomes final. Id. at 19. This, Cruz asserts, includes abiding by subsequent Supreme Court decisions that only apply, rather than modify or expand upon, settled rules. Id. Cruz posits that this premise underlies Supreme Court decisions not to apply new rules on collateral review. Id. at 21. Relying on the Supreme Court’s decisions in Yates v. Aiken, Danforth v. Minnesota, and Montgomery v. Louisiana, Cruz maintains that the Supreme Court previously dismissed attempts to frame failure to apply settled rules as an adequate and independent state ground. Id. at 23–27. Cruz contends that, because Arizona provides postconviction review and allows defendants to raise federal constitutional issues during postconviction review, it must decide those claims according to “the law as it stood when the case was on direct review.” Id. at 27. Cruz maintains that, by misinterpreting Simmons, Arizona failed to do so. Id.
Additionally, Cruz contends that the application of Rule 32.1(g) is not independent of federal law because it involved “interwoven” questions of federal law. Id. at 44. Cruz argues that, to decide whether there was a significant change in law, the Arizona Supreme Court had to consider the state of federal law at the time Cruz was sentenced. Id. at 45–46. Cruz notes that the court’s analysis hinged entirely on its interpretations of Simmons and Lynch—decisions of the United States Supreme Court applying federal law. Id. at 46. Thus, Cruz concludes that the Supreme Court has the power to correct errors in Arizona’s interpretation of federal law. Id. at 46–47.
Arizona responds that, while it has opened its postconviction process to federal constitutional claims, it has not opened it to all such claims, but only to claims that meet threshold requirements of its postconviction process, including Rule 32.1(g). Brief for Respondent, State of Arizona at 33. Arizona contends that federal retroactivity law dictates only “what law a state court must apply when adjudicating a claim on its merits,” not whether states can dismiss claims on procedural grounds without deciding them. Id. at 34. Thus, Arizona maintains that because Rule 32.1(g) dictates whether claims can be heard, not what law will apply if claims are heard, it is consistent with federal law. Id. at 31–32. Arizona asserts that if federal law were to require state courts to hear particular claims in collateral proceedings, there would be “effectively no limits on a criminal defendant’s ability to continue to bring claims” and finality would be eroded. Id. at 32. Arizona argues that it is entitled to require defendants to bring particular claims on direct appeal or in the first round of postconviction proceedings, or else forfeit them. Id. at 32–33. Arizona claims that Yates, Danforth, and Montgomery do not apply because in each of them, the state court rejected the claims on the merits, rather than deciding that the claim could not be heard at all. Id. at 34–36.
Further, Arizona argues that the application of Rule 32.1(g) to Cruz’s case was independent of federal law because it did not involve deciding the merits of Cruz’s claim. Id. at 15–19. Arizona contends that, under the Supreme Court’s decision in Stewart v. Smith, a state court’s consideration of federal law to categorize a claim for purposes of a state procedural rule does not render its decision dependent on federal law. Id. at 16. Arizona asserts that the Arizona Supreme Court’s consideration of Simmons and Lynch served only to categorize Cruz’s claim as not stemming from a significant change in law, rather than to decide whether he had a meritorious claim. Id. at 16. Arizona notes that the Arizona Supreme Court did not need to consider whether Simmons or Lynch applied to Cruz’s case, only whether Lynch was a significant change from Simmons. Id. at 18.
TREATMENT OF FEDERAL RIGHTS
Cruz argues that Rule 32.1(g) is not an adequate state ground because it treats federal rights less favorably than state rights. Brief for Petitioner at 28. Cruz notes that the Arizona Rule places defendants who seek to assert their federal rights in a “Catch-22.” Id. at 29. Cruz contends that, to have their claim heard, they must show that it stems from “a significant change in the law,” however, that same showing defeats the claim on the merits because a significant change will not apply retroactively under Teague, which bars application of constitutional rules of criminal procedure established after final conviction. Id. Additionally, Cruz asserts that the Arizona Supreme Court’s interpretation of the rule gives greater effect to its own decisions than to United States Supreme Court decisions. Id. at 30. Cruz notes that, when the Arizona Supreme Court overrules itself, it treats that decision as a significant change in the law but does not treat Lynch as a significant change even though the United States Supreme Court overruled the Arizona Supreme Court. Id. at 30–31. Cruz argues that these discriminations deny him his constitutional right to “one full and fair opportunity” to litigate his constitutional claims. Id. at 32. Furthermore, he accuses the Arizona Supreme Court of evincing a “purpose or pattern to evade” Simmons. Id. at 33.
Arizona counters that its rule does not exclude claims because they are based on federal rights, but because they could have been brought at an earlier stage. Brief for Respondent at 28. Thus, Arizona claims, its bar on bringing particular claims is a “neutral procedural rule.” Id. Rule 32.1(g), Arizona contends, was designed as a safety valve for “extraordinary” cases where the defendant could not bring a claim earlier because it is based on a rule that did not yet exist. Id. at 26. Arizona maintains that, since the Simmons rule existed at the time of Cruz’s trial (and since Lynch did not modify Simmons), Cruz’s claim does not fall in that category. Id. at 26. Arizona argues that, even before Lynch, Cruz had a reasonable opportunity to raise his Simmons claim on direct appeal. Id. at 25. Arizona disputes Cruz’s characterization of its courts as “hostile” to Simmons, pointing to cases after Lynch where its courts applied Simmons. Id. at 26–27. Arizona asserts that even if its courts attempted to evade Simmons, Cruz’s remedy was to petition the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari to review the Arizona Supreme Court’s judgment. Id. at 30.
Lastly, Cruz argues that the Arizona Supreme Court’s interpretation of Rule 32.1(g) is not an adequate state ground—that is, it is not substantial enough to preclude federal review—because Arizona has inconsistently applied it. Brief for Petitioner at 39. Cruz contends that the Arizona Supreme Court has held since 1989 that overruling binding precedent constitutes “a significant change.” Id. at 40. Cruz notes that this rule has extended to situations where the prior decision is overruled by the court that issued it as well as a higher court. Id. at 41. In particular, Cruz points to State v. Poblete, where an Arizona appellate court held that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Padilla v. Kentucky was a significant change in law because it overruled Arizona caselaw. Id. Cruz argues that the Arizona Supreme Court reversed its longstanding interpretation of Rule 32.1(g) when it decided in his case that Lynch was not a significant change in law even though Lynch overruled Arizona precedent. Id. at 42. Cruz asserts that, even if the Arizona Supreme Court’s new interpretation of Rule 32.1(g) is technically compatible with its previous decisions, it nevertheless has been inconsistently applied. Id. at 43–44.
Arizona counters that the significant change in law requirement is an adequate ground because Arizona courts have consistently applied it. Brief for Respondent at 19–20. Arizona argues that a “mere change in precedent” is not a significant change in law when it changes only the interpretation or application of the legal rule, rather than the rule itself. Id. at 21. Poblete, Arizona claims, is consistent with this rule because Padilla changed the legal rule that Arizona courts applied. Id. Arizona maintains that Lynch did not change the legal rule of Simmons, but its application. Id. at 22. In other words, Arizona contends, what Lynch changed was not the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of federal law, but its interpretation of Arizona’s sentencing law. Id. at 23. Thus, Arizona argues that Lynch was not a change in law “even if, between Simmons and Lynch, Arizona courts reached the wrong outcome in some cases.” Id. at 22.
IMPACT ON STATES’ APPLICATIONS OF THEIR PROCEDURAL RULES
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, American Civil Liberties Union, and American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona (“Criminal Defense Lawyers”), in support of Cruz, assert that Arizona’s application of 32.1(g) violates the Supremacy Clause. Brief of Amici Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, American Civil Liberties Union, and American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, in Support of Petitioner at 6. The Criminal Defense Lawyers contend that Arizona is using procedure to avoid applying the substantive federal law of Simmons and Lynch, which is barred by the Supremacy Clause. Id. at 8. The Criminal Defense Lawyers expand on this idea, arguing that a state court cannot be allowed to not apply set federal law. Id. at 6. The Criminal Defense Lawyers argue that Arizona is trying to use new and changing interpretations of their state procedural rules to shield themselves from the review of higher courts. Id. at 7. The Criminal Defense Lawyers further this point, by stating there should be skepticism of this practice, as it results in unequal applications of federally guaranteed constitutional rights. Id.
Jonathan F. Mitchell and Adam K. Mortara (“Mitchell and Mortara”), federal habeas law professors, in support of Arizona, contend that this is not a Supremacy Clause violation, and Arizona is legally establishing their own procedural boundaries. Brief of Amici Curiae Jonathan F. Mitchell and Adam K. Mortara ("Mitchell and Mortara"), in Support of Respondents at 17, 20. The crux of the issue, for Mitchell and Mortara, is that a state should be allowed to establish the boundaries of its own procedural rules through case law, without fear of claims that the change in law is an inadequate and dependent state law ground. Id. at 20. Mitchell and Mortara assert that Arizona regularly follows 32.1(g), and even if the interpretation changes slightly from case to case, this does not undermine the state’s generally consistent application. Id. As such, Mitchell and Mortara see this as the Supreme Court impermissibly involving themselves in a state procedural affair that is long-established. Id.
BALANCING FINALITY AND THE CORRECTION OF UNCONSTITUTIONAL SENTENCES
Ohio Justice & Policy Center and Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center (“Justice Centers”), in support of Cruz, assert that the Arizona Supreme Court’s interpretation of rule 32.1(g) violates due process and thus Cruz has been unconstitutionally sentenced to death. Brief of Amici Curiae Ohio Justice & Policy Center and Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, in Support of Petitioners at 13–14. The Justice Centers believe it is important to correct due process errors, and thus ensure the continued functioning of the constitutional system. See id. The Justice Centers argue that fair treatment for all is at the core of this case, and defendants should always have the right to be heard on settled law, regardless of the state they come from. Id. at 5–6.
Mitchell and Mortara, in support of Arizona, contend that this is not a due process violation and emphasize the importance of finality in death penalty cases. Brief of Mitchell and Mortara at 15–16. Mitchell and Mortara acknowledge that there is a constitutional claim underlying the procedural issue here, however, they assert that errors should have been corrected on appeal, and courts should not allow for continuous successive claims. Id. at 16–17. Furthermore, Mitchell and Mortara view Cruz’s claim as attempting to re-litigate claims in postconviction proceedings that he already appealed directly to no success. Id. at 17. As such, Mitchell and Mortara maintain that the justice system is already at work here, and despite potential constitutional violations underlying this procedural question, finality is of the utmost importance. Mitchell and Mortara believe that Cruz has had his opportunity to litigate these questions through his direct appeal process. Id. at 15, 17.
The authors would like to thank Professors John Blume and Keir Weyble for their guidance and insights into this case.
- Supreme Court to Consider Whether Arizona Can Deny Death-Row Prisoner Review of Claim that Jury Was Misled About His Parole Eligibility, Death Penalty Information Center (Apr. 1, 2022).
- Howard Fischer, High Court Upholds Cop Killer’s Conviction, Tuscon.com (Apr. 22, 2008).
- Reagan Priest, Supreme Court to Hear Appeal of Death-Row Inmate in Death of Tucson Cop, Cronkite News (Mar. 28, 2022).