Release Date:  March 23, 2016
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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In a unanimous decision announced today, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit U. S. Court of Appeals has overturned a federal district judge’s 2013 ruling which had blocked implementation of a federal law that allows states expedited post-conviction review of death penalty cases. The law in question, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) enacted by Congress and signed by President Clinton 20 years ago, was passed to limit unnecessary delay of death penalty cases and provide states with an opportunity to significantly reduce the time allowed for federal courts to review a murderer’s error claims on habeas corpus. For many cases, the time savings could amount to ten years.

At issue, in Habeas Corpus Resource Center v. Dept. of Justice was Federal District Judge Claudia Wilken’s authority to block implementation of the law, based upon the claim of a group of government-paid defense attorneys, that it would work a hardship on them.

The Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which had assisted with the adoption of AEDPA, filed arguments in the case on behalf of two family members of murder victims, Marc Klaas of California and Edward Hardesty of Arizona. CJLF argued that the defense attorneys did not have a legal right (standing) to challenge the law and that it was not appropriate for the district court to review any challenge at this time. The Ninth Circuit opinion used argument and research introduced by the Foundation.

In the Court’s opinion, Judge Carlos Bea writes, “the Defender Organizations did not have standing to bring this suit . . . . We find the challenges to the substance of the Final Regulations not ripe for review at this time.”

“The district judge’s ruling blocking the implementation of this law violated the law itself as well as established law limiting the authority of federal courts. It was a blatant attempt by the plaintiffs and the judge to block an act of Congress that they do not agree with,” said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.

The key requirement for compliance under AEDPA is that a state seeking the fast-track review must provide condemned murderers with an attorney to present claims on a second round of review in state court. Most death penalty states already do this, although it is not required by the Constitution. One objective of AEDPA was to encourage those states who do not provide an attorney to do so in order to resolve their death penalty cases more quickly and at less expense.

In 2006, Congress amended the law to require states to apply for the fast-track process with the U. S. Attorney General, who was assigned under the law to develop regulations on the certification procedure. If the Attorney General denied an application, the state could appeal to the Federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In Fall of 2008, President Bush’s Attorney General issued the rules for applications. Days later, the California Habeas Corpus Resource Center, a state agency charged with helping speed the death penalty process, won a preliminary injunction from Federal District Judge Claudia Wilken, announcing that if the regulations went into effect they would “immediately thrust Plaintiff (defense attorneys) into uncertainty.”

Weeks later, Eric Holder, the new Attorney General, rescinded the regulations and began another lengthy consideration and review process.

In April 2013, the Arizona Attorney General got tired of waiting and applied without the regulations giving Attorney General Holder 90 days to respond. In August, after no response, Arizona took its application to the D.C. Circuit, as provided under AEDPA, for a ruling. The next month Attorney General Holder issued the new regulations. On October 18, Federal District Judge Claudia Wilken issued a temporary restraining order to prevent certification of any state application for the fast-track process. As a result, applications from the states of Arizona and Texas were indefinitely delayed. The U. S. Department of Justice appealed.

In its brief, the Foundation argued that neither AEDPA or the Constitution provide any Federal District Judge with the jurisdiction to hear argument or issue rulings regarding the certification process. The law places jurisdiction exclusively with the D.C. Circuit. Also, in the term used by the Supreme Court, a challenge to the regulations is not “ripe” until they have been used in an actual certification decision. Finally, a group of attorneys who defend murderers in death penalty cases do not have legal standing to challenge enforcement of this law. Supreme Court precedent notes that Congress “has explicitly limited such review to claims brought by person(s) suffering legal wrong(s) because of agency action.” Groups of lawyers who must merely deal with unanswered legal questions do not qualify.

“This decision is important not only for the families of murder victims, but also for everyone in the United States who depends upon the rule of law and relies upon the courts to follow it,” said Scheidegger.

CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.