SCOTUS Gets One Right on Due Process

The Supreme Court got one right on a criminal justice and due process issue, which is always cause for celebration. And it’s a case from Michigan, McQuiggin v. Perkins, which involves a murder conviction for someone who may well be innocent. Floyd Perkins says he is innocent and he has affidavits from several of the witnesses in his original trial that attest to that. You can read the full ruling here.

The district court ruled against Perkins because he had failed to file for federal habeas corpus relief within one year of his conviction, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, saying in effect that a claim of actual innocence overrides such procedural considerations. The Supreme Court has now upheld that ruling by a 5-4 margin, with Justice Ginsburg writing the opinion and joined by Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito were predictably in dissent, though Scalia’s dissent goes too far even for Alito, who refused to join the last section of it.

Actual innocence, if proved, serves as a gateway through which a petitioner may pass whether the impediment is a procedural bar, as it was in Schlup v. Delo and House v. Bell, or expiration of the AEDPA statute of limitations, as in this case.

Perkins, who waited nearly six years from the date of the 2002 affidavit to file his petition, maintains that an actual-innocence plea can overcome AEDPA’s one-year limitations period. This Court’s decisions support his view. The Court has not resolved whether a prisoner may be entitled to habeas corpus relief based on a freestanding actual innocence claim, but it has recognized that a prisoner “otherwise subject to defenses of abusive or successive use of the writ may have his federal constitutional claim considered on the merits if he makes a proper showing of actual innocence,”

The Court has applied this “fundamental miscarriage of justice exception” to overcome various procedural defaults, including, as most relevant here, failure to observe state procedural rules, such as filing deadlines. These decisions “see[k] to balance the societal interests infinality, comity, and conservation of scarce judicial resources with the individual interest in justice that arises in the extraordinary case.” Sensitivity to the injustice of incarcerating an innocent individual should not abate when the impediment is AEDPA’s statute of limitations.

This should be utterly obvious, of course, but not to the four most conservative members of the court, who simply do not care whether an innocent man has been imprisoned for his entire life, or even put to death, as long as the proper procedure was followed. This is hardly surprising since Scalia and Thomas have said the same thing in several other cases before. In the Troy Davis case a few years ago, the two of them filed a dissent from an order granting him a new trial to say:

This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable.

And their argument here? In essence, it is that this will make judges have to work harder. With this ruling, Scalia says, “floods of stale, frivolous and repetitious petitions [will] inundate the docket of the lower courts and swell our own.” Aww golly gee, my heart bleeds for you.

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  • Michael Heath

    Scalia says, “floods of stale, frivolous and repetitious petitions [will] inundate the docket of the lower courts and swell our own.” Aww golly gee, my heart bleeds for you.

    Which party is it that’s constantly claiming it’s the sole defender of our liberty rights? Just one more example of weapons-grade projection by a conservative.

  • Mr Ed

    Cargo cult justice, going through the right procedures at the right time is all that matters. As long as the ceremony of a trial is observed I don’t see how guilt or innocence fact into it.

  • Modusoperandi

    Michael Heath “Which party is it that’s constantly claiming it’s the sole defender of our liberty rights?”

    It’s personal Liberty against the Tyranny of the State. If you didn’t want to spend your life in prison, you should’ve worked harder to not be so guilty, and it would be tyrannical of the State to get in the way of itself simply because you’re not actually guilty.

  • zenlike

    Almost half of the highest judges in the country have consistently shown that they don’t give a damn if a person is actually guilty or not, as long as the ‘holy procedures of the law’ have been followed. I don’t know about anyone else, but this should scare the shit out of anyone…

  • baal

    All mammals are dogs.

    All duly convicted people are fit prisoners (or subjects for State (government) killings).

    It seems morality is lost on Scalia and Thomas. At any time a person is found out to not have committed a crime the moral thing to do is set them free immediately. I’d argue the State also has a duty at that point to rehab the person or at least pay them a stipend until they can support themselves.

  • eric

    And their argument here? In essence, it is that this will make judges have to work harder. With this ruling, Scalia says, “floods of stale, frivolous and repetitious petitions [will] inundate the docket of the lower courts and swell our own.”

    I know how you can solve the problem Scalia. Give jurisdiction of these requests to the FISC. They seem to be able to clear tens of thousands of frivolous, repetitious requests per year without breaking a sweat. Thank you, I’ll be here all week.

    More seriously, AIUI the typical situation we’re talking about is a criminal that wants some old sample DNA tested. State (or the federal) legislatures could just pass a law saying allow them in general, and these requests could be taken care of with minimal fuss. This would require money and labor, of course – some approved lab has to run the test, and someone has to pay for it – but I don’t see why such requests must necessarily involve a laborious, in-depth examination by a judge. Just make new DNA tests of any case held before 19XX standard practice.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Let’s keep in mind that part of the “workload excuse” is ideologically driven. The Federal District Courts have been overloaded for decades due to Congressional refusal to authorize more District Court judges (and of course it’s gotten worse thanks to the Senate blocking Obama appointments.)

    The fact that overloaded courts give right-wing Justices an excuse to deny justice is just frosting on the cake.

  • yoav

    Just have all suspects shot on the spot by the arresting officer. Sure some innocent people are going to get killed but it’s a small price to pay to make sure injustice Scalia’s work load is not too high and he has the time to attend all these highly profitable, lobbyist sponsored, conservative events he likes so much.

  • JoeBuddha

    “Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land

    Where justice is a game.”

  • naturalcynic

    Easy solution to potential overwork, Scalia. It’s called resignation. Here, let me help.

    Dear President Obama,

    Work is too hard. I quit.

    Signed John Scalia

    It’s just that easy

  • CSB

    The sad/hilarious thing is that at the time of the above-mentioned Troy Davis ruling, there was a fake Scalia quote floating around the tubes: “Mere factual innocence is no reason not to carry out a death: sentence properly reached.” If I recall correctly, it was actually from a parody article of some form.

    Despite how often as Poe’s Law is invoked these days…yeah.