(CN) – In a dissenting opinion Monday, Justice Antonin Scalia slammed the “distressing frequency” with which federal judges shirk their responsibility to carry out state criminal judgments. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined in the dissent.
The Supreme Court denied the petition for a writ of certiorari by the Alabama Corrections Department after the 11th Circuit granted habeas relief to a man on death row.
“In my view that decision was patently wrong: The court had no basis in law for setting aside the state courts’ judgment that respondent had failed to establish a probable effect of that failure upon the outcome,” Scalia wrote.
James Lawhorn was sentenced to death after being convicted of the 1988 shooting death of his aunt’s boyfriend, a crime for which his aunt paid him $100 to carry out.
The Supreme Court denied Lawhorn’s petition for certiorari in 1991, and several other courts denied giving Lawhorn postconviction relief.
But when Lawhorn sought habeas relief, a district court set aside the conviction and the sentence. Finding that Lawhorn’s criminal trial had been prejudiced by his lawyer’s mistakes, the 11th Circuit reinstated the conviction but upheld the sentence reversal.
The state challenged the ruling, arguing that Lawhorn never established prejudice. Lawhorn claimed that his lawyer failed him by not giving a closing argument, but Scalia agreed with the state that those statements would not have made a difference.
“I would not dissent from denial of certiorari if what happened here were an isolated judicial error,” Scalia wrote. “It is not. With distressing frequency, especially in capital cases such as this, federal judges refuse to be governed by Congress’s command that state criminal judgments must not be revised by federal courts unless they are ‘contrary to, or involv[e] an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.’ We invite continued lawlessness when we permit a patently improper interference with state justice such asthat which occurred in this case to stand.” (Italics in original.)