Monday, December 15, 2003

New Supreme Court case

The Supreme Court issued an opinion today in a case called Castro v. United States. The central issue in the case was whether Mr. Castro, a prisoner representing himself pro se, had filed a "second petition" for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. 2255. That might seem a rather obscure topic for a Supreme Court case, but it's fairly important: When someone is in prison for violating federal law, they basically get one round of direct appeals. After that, the only way to challenge the conviction is by bringing a habeas corpus action under 28 U.S.C. 2255, in which the prisoner argues that the conviction was unconstitutional.

The thing is, though, Congress cracked down on the availability of habeas corpus actions with the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). Most importantly, if the prisoner has already filed one habeas corpus action, he can't file a second one (or a third, etc.) unless he meets some very strict conditions: The court of appeals has to pre-approve the claim by certifying either 1) that there is newly-discovered evidence that definitely proves the prisoner's innocence, or 2) that the Supreme Court has announced some new constitutional rule that applies retroactively to people already in jail. Number 2 almost never happens, as far as I know, and number 1 isn't much more likely.

And so we come to the issue in this case. The prisoner had filed one motion that he himself had called a "Rule 33 motion for a new trial." But, as courts often do in pro se cases, the district court here "recharacterized" the motion as one for habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. 2255. Then, when the prisoner wanted to file an actual habeas corpus motion under 28 U.S.C. 2255 some years later, the court basically said, "Tough luck, you had your one shot and you don't meet the conditions for a second habeas motion."

In the Court's majority opinion, Justice Breyer acknowledged that courts often "recharacterize" motions, particularly those filed by pro se prisoners. Without condemning this practice generally, Breyer wrote that the lower court had acted improperly here:
The limitation applies when a court recharacterizes a pro se litigant’s motion as a first §2255 motion. In such circumstances the district court must notify the pro se litigant that it intends to recharacterize the pleading, warn the litigant that this recharacterization means that any subsequent §2255 motion will be subject to the restric-tions on "second or successive" motions, and provide the litigant an opportunity to withdraw the motion or to amend it so that it contains all the §2255 claims he believes he has. If the court fails to do so, the motion cannot be considered to have become a §2255 motion for purposes of applying to later motions the law’s "second or successive" restrictions.
Most of the Justices signed on to this opinion in full. But Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, wrote a separate concurrence that is worth noting. Scalia began by saying, "I write separately because I disagree with the Court’s laissez-faire attitude toward recharacterization." He continued:
In my view, this approach gives too little regard to the exceptional nature of recharacterization within an adversarial system, and neglects the harm that may be caused pro se litigants even when courts do comply with the Court’s newly minted procedure.
* * *
It is not the job of a federal court to create a "better correspondence" between the substance of a claim and its underlying procedural basis. But if departure from traditional adversarial principles is to be allowed, it should certainly not occur in any situation where there is a risk that the patronized litigant will be harmed rather than assisted by the court’s intervention. It is not just a matter of whether the litigant is more likely, or even much more likely, to be helped rather than harmed. For the overriding rule of judicial intervention must be "First, do no harm." The injustice caused by letting the litigant’s own mistake lie is regrettable, but incomparably less than the injustice of producing prejudice through the court’s intervention. The risk of harming the litigant always exists when the court recharacterizes into a first §2255 motion a claim that is procedurally or substantively deficient in the manner filed.
* * *
In other words, even fully informed district courts that try their best not to harm pro se litigants by recharacterizing may nonetheless end up doing so because they cannot predict and protect against every possible adverse effect that may flow from recharacterization. But if district courts are unable to provide this sort of protection, they should not recharacterize into first §2255 motions at all.
In short, Scalia and Thomas were concerned that the Court's new rule wasn't protective enough towards pro se prisoners. And that is what I find interesting.

Of course, this isn't the first time that Scalia and Thomas joined in an opinion that was more "liberal" towards criminal defendants than the rest of the Court. In Apprendi v. New Jersey, the Court considered whether New Jersey’s hate crime statute was unconstitutional. Under this law, once the jury had decided guilt for the underlying crime, the prosecutor could get an increased sentence merely by proving the “hate” motive to a judge at sentencing (where the standard of proof was merely preponderance of the evidence). The Supreme Court held that this practice was unconstitutional, because the Constitution’s right to trial by jury requires that any factor which increases a defendant’s sentence beyond a statutory maximum should be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Thomas wrote a concurrence, joined by Scalia, in which he argued for an even broader rule – that any facts which might increase a sentence at all (not just those that increase it beyond the statutory maximum) should have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.


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