Sotomayor Skewers Louisiana Policy for Appeals Scandal

WASHINGTON (CN) –  Eliciting a statement of concern from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court declined Monday to take up a case stemming from a suicide note that described a secret court policy in Louisiana targeting the poor.

The note came from a staffer at the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal who killed himself at his office in May 2007. In the note, the worker claimed that judges on the state appellate court had not reviewed habeas petitions from poor criminal defendants in more than a decade.

Instead of reviewing the petitions as required by the Louisiana Constitution, the judges deputized the staffer to review them and select from a list of 14 reasons to deny. The system, which the staffer said tormented him, was crafted to turn around writs in one or two days and affected hundreds of petitions.

“For probably the past 10 years, not one criminal writ application filed by an inmate pro se has been reviewed by a judge on the court,” the staffer’s note alleged. “I prepared the ruling on each of those writ applications, and they were signed by a judge, without so much as a glance at the application.”

Louie Schexnayder was one of the people with an appeal before the court at the relevant time period, having brought a habeas petition in 1999 related to his second-degree murder conviction.

The court denied his claims, saying there was “no error” in the lower-court’s ruling, which was one of the predetermined options said to be available to the staffer who killed himself.

“Let that sink in for a moment,” one of Schexnayder’s filings with the Supreme Court states. “The legality of petitioner’s confinement was determined by a staff member, not a judge. And even the staff member’s determination was, by design, a sham: He was not authorized to grant habeas relief, only to select one of fourteen ‘reasons’ to deny it.”

After the scheme came to light, the Louisiana Supreme Court adopted a rule that allowed affected cases to be reheard by a three-judge panel. Schexnayder’s original petition was among those ultimately found not worthy of relief by the panel.

In 2012, Schexnayder filed suit pro se, claiming the Louisiana court’s scheme should allow for further review of his earlier claims. A federal judge initially dismissed the suit, but the Fifth Circuit federal appeals court revived it, allowing Schexnayder to press his habeas petition before a U.S. magistrate.

Ultimately a district judge heeded the recommendation of the magistrate to deny Schexnayder’s ineffective-assistance and other claims.

On further appeal, Schexnayder urged the Supreme Court to study the deference given to the state court’s earlier decision under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. While the magistrate judge deferred to the state court under the law, Schexnayder argued that because the state court’s process was so flawed, it should not be entitled to deference.

The Supreme Court declined to take up the case, a decision that Justice Sotomayor said she supported in a two-page statement. She did find flaws, however, in the Louisiana courts’ procedure to reconsider the petitions caught up in the scheme.

“The re-review procedure adopted by the Louisiana courts, however, raises serious due process concerns,” Sotomayor wrote. “I expect that lower federal courts will examine the issue of what deference is due to these decisions when it is properly raised.”

In a separate case the court denied Monday, Sotomayor also raised concerns about how some federal prosecutors use so-called factual-basis statements, which are signed statements used to support guilty pleas. The case the Supreme Court denied on Monday concerned the practice of sending such statements into the jury room in the trial of an alleged participant in a crime to which other people pleaded guilty.

Sotomayor said in a two-page statement that because the attorney for the person appealing his conviction to the Supreme Court did not object to the statements at trial, she agreed with the court’s decision to deny review. She did, however, raise concerns about prosecutors using factual-basis statements in this manner.

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