Tag: death penalty

Is the Federal Government Bound by the Agreements It Makes With States?

The Interstate Agreement on Detainers, a compact authorized by federal statute, provides a simple procedure for transferring custody of prisoners between states. Because the federal government annually seeks to prosecute thousands of prisoners already in state custody, it joined the IAD in 1970 to get the benefit of this unified procedure. When it joined, it did so as a “state” for purposes of the agreement, and exempted itself from only two provisions (which aren’t relevant here). One of the provisions that the federal government decided not to exempt itself from, Article IV(a), allows the governor of the sending state to deny any request made by a receiving state to transfer a prisoner.

In September of 2010, Jason Pleau offered to plead guilty to robbery and murder charges in Rhode Island in exchange for life in prison without parole, the harshest sentence that state’s law allows. Pleau’s crimes also allegedly violated federal law, however, and the U.S. government wanted to prosecute Pleau itself in order to seek the death penalty. The federal government thus sought custody through the IAD by filing for the little-known writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum (“show me the body for prosecution”).

The governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, disapproves of the death penalty and used his authority under the IAD’s Article IV(a) to deny the federal request. A federal district court, later affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, overruled Chafee’s denial, stating that the Supremacy Clause prevented the governor from interfering with the federal government’s wishes.

The First Circuit found that the compact’s specific text and the normal canons of statutory construction were “all beside the point.” According to the court, what was important was that Congress could not possibly have meant to grant state governors the power to deny federal transfer requests—and thus the IAD didn’t affect the balance of power between the federal government and the states. The First Circuit thus granted the writ, and Pleau is now in federal custody.

The question presented here, whether the Supremacy Clause trumps a governor’s right to deny a request for transfer of custody under the IAD, raises two important issues: First, if the First Circuit is right, then the federal government may reap the benefit of interstate bargains without having to fulfill its own obligations under them. Second, the First Circuit’s opinion effectively treats the state courts as inferior to the federal courts, which upsets the system of concurrent sovereignty that the Founders designed.

Cato has joined the Independence Institute to file an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear this case, with a focus on the second issue. We argue that the U.S. legal system has always recognized the dual sovereignty of federal and state courts, dating back to Chief Justice John Marshall. As Chief Justice Marshall explained, that dual system requires that state courts not be considered inferior to federal courts, and thus federal courts have no independent authority to order prisoners under state jurisdiction to be transferred to the federal system.

Furthermore, when abrogating state sovereignty via the Supremacy Clause, Congress must demonstrate its intent to do so with “unmistakably clear language”—and none of the statutes applicable here contain any such language. Finally, we argue that the First Circuit has misinterpreted relevant Supreme Court precedent and that a proper reading of the relevant case law would establish that a state is well within its rights to treat the federal government like any other state under the IAD and deny its request to transfer a prisoner into federal custody.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take up the case of Chafee v. United States and Pleau v. United States later this fall.

Notice of Court Orders Is Important in Death Penalty Cases

The representation of prisoners accused of capital crimes is unique in its difficulty – and in the consequences – when that representation is inadequate. Maples v. Thomas, which will be argued before the Supreme Court this fall, exposes some of the serious cracks in the system charged with representing indigent defendants in such cases.   

Cato takes no position on the merits of the death penalty other than that the Constitution does not prohibit it and that our justice system is responsible for, at the very least, ensuring that prisoners receive fair notice of orders on which their lives depend.  Both the courts and counsel failed Cory Maples here. 

Maples was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for killing two companions.  After a series of state court appeals which affirmed his conviction, Maples filed a petition for post-conviction relief, which was ultimately dismissed. 

Maples never received notice of this deadline-triggering order because his pro bono lawyers left their big-firm jobs and a court clerk did nothing when the letter containing the order was consequently returned unopened.  Because Maples did not receive notice of the deadline, he did not timely file an appeal and his claims were procedurally defaulted.  The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Maples’s subsequent federal habeas petition because Maples “cannot establish cause for his default because there is no right to post-conviction counsel.” 

Cato has now joined The Constitution Project to file an amicus brief supporting Maples and arguing that the Supreme Court should excuse his default because the state failed to notify him of an order that could result in his death.  Moreover, if the default is not excused, the state’s inaction will deny Maples his constitutional right of meaningful access to the courts. 

The Eleventh Circuit relied on the rule that because “there is no constitutional right to an attorney in state post-conviction proceedings, a petitioner cannot claim constitutionally ineffective counsel in such proceedings.”  But Maples’s habeas claim does not involve the ineffectiveness of his post-conviction counsel; his underlying claim is that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance. Indeed, his post-conviction counsel provided no assistance whatsoever when it was time to appeal. 

Finally, there is cause to excuse Maples’s default because this case is ultimately governed by principles of equity and basic fairness.  Few if any reasonable observers would conclude that it is fair or equitable to put a man to death without allowing the least consideration of appellate claims that could save his life simply because his lawyers left their jobs, a firm mailroom returned letters to them unopened, and the court clerk’s office did nothing when it discovered that crucial notice was never received. 

Again, the case is Maples v. Thomas and you can read Cato’s brief here.

Today’s Other Big Bad Supreme Court Opinion

As Wally points out in his Supreme Court/Kagan roundup, the Court did further damage to principled constitutional interpretation in citing foreign law as support for its holding that life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences are unconstitutional as applied to juveniles committing non-homicide crimes.  As I blogged when we filed a brief in the case, Graham v. Florida, “Cato takes no position on the wisdom of these types of sentences, but when evaluating their constitutionality the Court should only consider American law.”

That is, regardless of the criminological or moral merits of juvenile LWOP sentences, the Court ought not consider non-binding provisions of international human rights treaties, other countries’ laws, or customary international law in its analysis (as it unfortunately has in several death penalty cases).  The Court should leave to the political branches the decision of whether to transform international norms into domestic law and only allow duly ratified international agreements to override domestic law — as I’ve also described in the Cato Supreme Court Review. Reliance on indefinite international norms undermines both the democratic process and the rule of law, casting considerable uncertainty over many U.S. laws.  Although looking to international example is prudent when designing constitutions and drafting legislation, it is simply not relevant to interpreting the nation’s founding document.

There are other problems with Justice Kennedy’s opinion.  For example, apparently the fact that 37 states plus the District of Columbia allow juvenile LWOP sentences does not mean that there is a national consensus.  This is so even though a similar number of states did constitute a consensus against the death penalty for an adult’s rape of a child in Kennedy v. Louisiana (which Roger discussed in the pages of the Supreme Court Review) – even though there the federal government itself had recently passed a law authorizing the death penalty for such an offense!  The point is that the whole idea of “consensus”-based constitutional interpretation is flawed.  As Josh Blackman and I wrote in our Privileges or Immunities Pandora’s Box article:

If the Supreme Court could not properly analyze the extent of the consensus among state laws governing the sentencing of child rapists, an area that any first-year law student could understand with the proper Lexis search, how can we expect judges to understand consensuses on nebulous and polarizing social issues – on which public opinion ebbs and flows – such as the right to health care, the right to education, or reproductive rights?

Moreover, what constitutes a national consensus?  Half the population? Two thirds?  Ninety percent?  To paraphrase Justice Brennan’s quip, why not whatever five duly confirmed justices think?  Should the Court commission its own Gallup Poll?  What standard should the consensus be based on?  How long should it exist?  These are inherently subjective determinations, not reducible to judicially or legislatively manageable standards.

Finally, Eugene Volokh points out the judicial policy-making (the imposition of a judge’s own views) inherent in Justice Stevens’s concurring opinion – likely the senior associate justice’s last pronouncement on the death penalty.  And for more on the case generally, see Lyle Denniston’s write-up at SCOTUSblog.

In short, this is a dog’s breakfast of a case – again, regardless of what one thinks about the underlying criminological/moral issues – and truly an unfortunate day for principled jurisprudence and constitutional limits on power (in Graham’s case, judicial power).