High Court Gives Texan Second Chance to Appeal Assault Sentence

WASHINGTON (CN) — Ruling on the interplay of two procedural rules, the Supreme Court on Monday revived a Texas man’s effort to challenge his 30-year sentence for aggravated assault. 

While driving in May 2002, Gregory Banister hit and killed a cyclist. Banister claims the cyclist veered into his lane of traffic because of windy conditions. But while prosecuting him for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, Texas claimed Banister was sleep-deprived from using cocaine and was as a result driving recklessly. 

The U.S. Supreme Court. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

After an unsuccessful direct appeal and state habeas petition, Banister brought a federal habeas petition that primarily claimed his trial counsel was ineffective. The court denied the application and Banister filed a motion to alter the judgment “to correct manifest errors of law and fact” under Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The court denied that motion as well.

Two months after the district court first denied his habeas petition, Banister appealed. 

Rule 59(e) motions typically stop the clock on how long a party has to appeal a court judgment, but under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, additional habeas petitions do not have the same effect. 

The Fifth Circuit determined Banister’s 59(e) motion was better viewed as a second federal habeas petition and that therefore his appeal was untimely.

Writing for the seven-justice majority Monday, Justice Elena Kagan found ample support for the idea that Banister’s motion for reconsideration should not be characterized as a second habeas petition. 

“Here, both historical precedents and statutory aims point in the same direction — toward permitting rule 59(e) motions in habeas proceedings,” Kagan wrote. “And nothing cuts the opposite way.” 

She said allowing petitioners to file motions for reconsideration does not raise concerns about indefinitely stretching out habeas proceedings, as the motion includes specific time windows. If a court identifies errors in its earlier decision, the motion could also make an appeal entirely unnecessary, Kagan wrote. 

That finding was similar to the argument Banister made in briefs to the Supreme Court that preventing rule 59(e) motions as an outlet for speedy resolution of errors in trial court rulings would “frustrate — rather than promote” the goals of preserving court resources that Congress had in mind when it passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.  

A dissent from Justices Samuel Alito argued the substance of Banister’s motion for reconsideration made it effectively a habeas petition and that the label he put on it should not make a significant difference.

Alito, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, said it does not make sense that if a petitioner filed three identical petitions, but labeled one as a second habeas petition, another as a relief from judgment and a third as a rule 59(e) motion, only the rule 59(e) motion would be permitted. 

The George W. Bush appointee warned the majority’s holding will bring on an avalanche of 59(e) motions even though statistics show lower-court habeas rulings are rarely overturned.

“The court is probably right that, once in a while, a rule 59(e) motion could save the need for an appeal,” Alito wrote. “But that positive effect is very likely outweighed by the burden imposed by the entirely meritless rule 59(e) motions that today’s decision will give prisoners an incentive to file.”

Brian Burgess, an attorney with the Washington firm Goodwin Procter who represents Banister, praised the court’s decision on Monday.

“The decision by the court today ensures that Mr. Banister will have a full and fair opportunity to pursue his appeal,” Burgess said in a statement. “And it ensures that others like him will retain a meaningful ability to challenge wrongful denials of their habeas applications.” 

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