Habeas Procedures in the 11th Draw Out Sotomayor

The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Courthouse in Atlanta, home of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. (Photo via Eoghanacht/Wikipedia Commons)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor called out the 11th Circuit on Monday for breaking step with other appeals courts when it comes to successive habeas petitions from inmates.

“In sum, the Eleventh Circuit represents the ‘worst of three worlds,’” Sotomayor wrote, noting that it rushes habeas cases through a 30-day window; and it does not allow for oral arguments in noncapital cases, and it overwhelmingly gives habeas rulings binding effect as compared with other courts.

Sotomayor dissected the federal appeals court’s processes in a statement respecting the denial of a case involving Michael St. Hubert, who is serving an enhanced sentence of 32 years for brandishing a firearm during a robbery because the crime was considered violent.

St. Hubert brought his fight to Washington after the 11th Circuit — a court that hears appeals of federal cases out of Alabama, Florida and Georgia — denied him an en banc rehearing.

Per its custom, the high court did not explain why it denied St. Hubert a writ of certiorari this morning. As Sotomayor noted in a statement accompanying the order list, however, the 11th Circuit has procedural issues that it needs to resolve first.

When the 11th Circuit publishes its orders denying permission to file a second or successive petition, that ruling is binding for “all future litigants (including those on direct appeal) … unless and until an en banc Eleventh Circuit or this court says otherwise,” Sotomayor wrote.

“These factors make out a troubling tableau indeed,” she wrote. “Most importantly, they raise a question whether the Eleventh Circuit’s process is consistent with due process. The Eleventh Circuit has not yet appeared to address a procedural due process claim head on, so I will leave it to that court to consider the issue in the first instance in an appropriate case. In the meantime, nothing prevents the Eleventh Circuit from reconsidering its practices to make them fairer, more transparent, and more deliberative.”

Sotomayor’s six-page statement notes that the en banc denial against St. Hubert came with a dissent from several 11th Circuit judges over what they called “grave problems” with the court’s practice of publishing habeas rulings so that they have precedential effect.

“In those judges’ view,” Sotomayor wrote, “the court’s procedures stymied its ‘ability to administer justice to the people who come before.’”

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment and federal public defender Brenda Greenberg Bryn declined to comment on Sotomayor’s statement Monday. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief in support of St. Hubert’s petition, but also did not respond to a request for comment. 

Sotomayor proposed that, before having to tackle a procedural due process challenge to its methods, the court take initiative and solicit fuller briefings on cases that present open questions on the law, and also place precedential value only on orders coming out of more robust consideration of a prisoner’s petition. 

“It could even allow limited oral argument for the thorniest of questions presented through those applications (especially questions that may affect many future litigants),” she added. 

Falling in line with basic fairness, Sotomayor argued, will ensure that prisoners like St. Hubert do not spend several more years in prison because of “artificially imposed limitations” like the current 100-word cap on habeas petitions set by the 11th Circuit.

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