Judges Aren’t ‘Humpty Dumpties,’ 9th Circuit’s Reinhardt Thunders

     (CN) — A Ninth Circuit judge railed against his colleagues Friday for going along with a statutory interpretation in a murder case that he said transforms judges “into Humpty Dumpties.”
     “We cannot make a word ‘mean just what [we] choose it to mean,'” wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt, quoting “Alice in Wonderland.”
     “No matter how ‘very clever [a Court of Appeal may be] at explaining words,’ there is simply no way an appellate court can reasonably find that the trial judge did what he clearly did not do,” he added (emphasis in original).
     Reinhardt penned the sharp dissent against his colleagues’ finding that dismissal of a holdout juror did not violate the rights of a woman serving life in prison for driving the getaway car in a deadly liquor store robbery.
     Today’s decision marks the panel’s third brush with the case of Tara Sheneva Williams after two Supreme Court reversals.
     Williams has been serving life in connection to the 1993 murder of a man who owned liquor store in Long Beach, California.
     “While Williams and her infant son waited in the car, her two friends went inside, murdered the store owner and robbed the cash register of $6 and food stamps,” today’s ruling states.
     Before a jury convicted her of murder, the trial judge dismissed a holdout juror he said appeared biased.
     A federal judge later found that the jury shakeup did not trample her Sixth Amendment rights, but the Ninth Circuit reversed in 2011, granting Williams habeas relief.
     This prompted the U.S. Supreme Court first reversal in 2013. Justice Samuel Alito penned that opinion, which said the Ninth Circuit failed to give proper deference to the state court under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
     AEDPA “sharply limits the circumstances in which a federal court may issue a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner whose claim was ‘adjudicated on the merits in state court proceedings,'” he said.
     Though the Ninth Circuit affirmed denial of the habeas relief for Williams on remand, the Supreme Court was still dissatisfied and issued a summary reversal.
     Following explicit instructions to consider Williams’ Sixth Amendment claim on remand, the Ninth Circuit ruled against Williams yet again Friday.
     “The Supreme Court has expressly endorsed the use of evidentiary hearings to ferret out juror bias,” Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for the court. “The process employed by the trial judge was not contrary to, nor an unreasonable application of, Supreme Court authority.”
     The panel likewise shot down Williams’ argument that her trial judge excused Juror 6 because of his views as to guilt or innocence.
     Though there is Ninth Circuit precedent for this theory in the 1999 case U.S. v. Symington, Kozinski said his bench is barred from relying on circuit precedent when AEDPA governs this case, as is the case here.
     “Williams has not cited any Supreme Court case imposing (or even hinting at) the Symington rule,” Kozinski added. “Nor are we aware of such a case. Williams is not entitled to habeas relief on this theory.”
     The Ninth Circuit majority last considered whether it was unreasonable for the state appeals court to approve dismissal of Juror 6 by Judge Richard Romero for bias.
     “The state appellate court was entitled to make its own factual findings, unconstrained by what the trial court did,” Kozinski wrote. “Even if Judge Romero did not find that Juror 6 was unwilling to follow the law, the state appellate court did make such a finding. As we have already explained, that finding was reasonable. Thus, the fact that the state appellate court’s findings may have departed from those of the trial court is irrelevant. Federal habeas courts enforce reasonableness, not concordance.”
     Senior U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte joined the 11-page majority opinion, sitting by designation from San Jose.
     For Judge Stephen Reinhardt, however, “the majority is wrong.”
     “Although AEDPA, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, may create its own topsy-turvy world of constitutional reality, it does not go so far as to allow words to have the direct opposite meaning of what they are commonly understood to have and of the meaning that was clearly intended by the speaker,” Reinhardt wrote in dissent. “Here, the key word is ‘not’ — that is, the trial judge explicitly stated that he was not removing the holdout juror because he was unwilling to follow the law. Contrary to what the state appellate court found, ‘not’ simply does not mean its opposite — the affirmative. AEDPA, however puzzling it may be from a constitutional standpoint, does not transform judges into Humpty Dumpties.”
     Reinhardt said the record is clear.
     “The state appellate court found that the state trial court dismissed the holdout juror because he was unwilling to follow the law even though the trial court expressly rejected that reason,” he concluded. “That is an unreasonable finding of fact.”

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