Justices Reject Sloppy California Habeas Case

     WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court blasted the Ninth Circuit on Monday for favoring a California inmate’s challenge without deference to state rulings.
     Antonio Hinojosa petitioned for state habeas relief after California changed the law in 2010 so that associates of prison gangs placed in a secured housing unit could no longer earn future good-time credits.
     Hinojosa was serving a 16-year sentence for armed robbery when he was labeled a prison-gang associate in 2009 and placed in a secured housing unit.
     The Orange County Superior Court rejected Hinojosa’s habeas claim, saying he should have filed the petition in the county where he is confined. In Hinojosa’s case, he should have filed in King County Superior Court.
     Hinojosa did not file there, however, and the appellate division shot him down as well.
     Next the state Supreme Court denied Hinojosa an original writ of habeas corpus, and Hinojosa next petitioned for federal habeas relief.
     The U.S. District Court rejected Hinojosa’s petition, citing deference under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which requires a state prisoner seeking federal habeas relief first to “exhaust the remedies available in the courts of the state.”
     A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed, however, saying the California Supreme Court’s summary denial of a habeas petition did not trigger AEDPA’s deferential-review provisions because it was not “on the merits.”
     This outcome proved untenable, however, to the Supreme Court on Monday.
     The summary reversal quotes from the 1991 decision Ylst v. Nunnemaker, which emphasized that where “the last reasoned opinion on the claim explicitly imposes a procedural default, we will presume that a later decision rejecting the claim did not silently disregard that bar and consider the merits.”
     Ylst nevertheless holds that “strong evidence” can refute the presumption.
     “It is amply refuted here,” the unsigned opinion states. “Improper venue could not possibly have been a ground for the high court’s summary denial of Hinojosa’s claim.”
     Since there is only one Supreme Court of California, that venue is the only one in which Hinojosa could have sought an original writ of habeas corpus, according to the ruling.
     “Under these circumstances, it cannot be that the state Supreme Court’s denial ‘rest[ed] upon the same ground’ as the superior court’s,” the ruling states. “It quite obviously rested upon some different ground.”
     Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined a dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, which says emphasizes the California Supreme Court’s failure to give any reason when it denied Hinojosa’s petition.
     “Applying Ylst’s commonsense presumption, it is ‘most improbable’ that the California Supreme Court’s unexplained order disagreed with the superior court’s reasoned order,” Sotomayor wrote. “We should therefore presume that the California Supreme Court denied Antonio Hinojosa’s habeas petition because he filed the first one in the wrong county.”
     Sotomayor faulted the majority’s “straw-man” reasoning about there being only one California Supreme Court.
     “Obviously the California Supreme Court did not deny Hinojosa’s petition because he filed it in the wrong state Supreme Court,” she wrote. “But it easily could have denied his petition because it agreed with the superior court’s conclusion that he filed the first petition in the wrong county.”
     Sotomayor called it “even flimsier” to rely on the California Supreme Court’s failure to include the words “without prejudice.”
     “It is mindboggling how one opinion necessarily disagrees with another opinion merely because it omits language that the other opinion also lacks,” Sotomayor added.

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