The Supreme Court did something today it hasn’t done for generations — it took an “original writ” of habeas corpus (a request made directly to the Supreme Court itself, instead of first filing it in a lower court), and then it ordered a federal District Court to hold a hearing on whether the convict is actually innocent.
The really dramatic thing about this is not the acceptance of an original habeas petition, but the fact that the Court’s order seems to imply that a convict may not be executed if he can prove actual innocence. As demonstrated most recently by the Court’s Osborne decison, it has persisted in absolutely refusing to decide that issue. They have gone out of their way, in fact, to repeatedly leave the question “unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable,” as Scalia said this morning.
Troy Anthony Davis was convicted 18 years ago, in Georgia state court, for the shooting death of an off-duty police officer, Mark Allen McPhail. At trial, Davis had insisted that he was innocent, though he had been present at the time. The jury didn’t believe him, and there were no constitutional problems with his trial.
Since then, seven of the witnesses against him have recanted their testimony, and evidence has come forward that the prosecution’s main witness was the actual killer. Davis has invoked the Supreme Court’s original habeas jurisdiction, relying on Court Rule 20.4(a) permitting such discretionary powers under “exceptional circumstances.”
A majority of the Court (new justice Sotomayor did not take part) agreed with Davis, found the necessary exceptional circumstances, and transferred the petition to a District Court. The District Court has been instructed to hold a hearing to determine whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes Davis’ actual innocence.
This appears to have set off quite a debate among the justices, in the middle of their summer recess.
Justices Scalia and Thomas are adamant that the Court did the wrong thing here. Most importantly, they point out that the District Court can’t grant Davis the relief he seeks, even if it wants to. So this transfer “is a confusing exercise that can serve no purpose except to delay the State’s execution of its lawful criminal judgment.”
District Courts only have power to release convicts pursuant to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. That statute prohibits habeas corpus for claims that were adjudicated on the merits in state court, unless that decision violates “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”
Because the Supreme Court has gone out of its way not to determine the issue of whether actual innocence is a valid basis for habeas release, Scalia and Thomas hold that it cannot be “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”
Justice Stevens, writing for the majority (joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer), simply sidestepped the issue. The AEDPA might not apply in an original habeas petition, he mused. And even if it does apply, it might be unconstitutional for it to prevent relief for someone who has established his innocence. Or, in the alternative, one might find that clearly established Court precedent already permits such relief, as it “would be an atrocious violation of our Constitution and the principles upon which it is based” to execute an innocent person.
Stevens’ closing paragraph, however, makes it clear that he understands that the Court has never dealt with the issue before, but he feels that it is time to create some new law. “Imagine a petitioner in Davis’s situation who possesses new evidence conclusively and definitively proving, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that he is an innocent man.” Applying the law as it exists, the way Scalia and Thomas would have the Court do, “would allow such a petitioner to be put to death nonetheless.”
In the 2008 term, Stevens seemed to be going out of his way to create a legacy. Writing as if he was about to announce his own retirement, his opinions seem to have sought for better principles rather than the application of existing ones. His jurisprudence is not about objective law, but subjective justice.
So this opinion fits right in with his others. To hell with the Court’s insistence on staying out of the “actual innocence” defense. here was a perfect opportunity to force the Court to deal with it once and for all. By sending it to the District Court expressly for the purpose of establishing that defense, he has ensured that the case will re-appear before the Supreme Court to decide it.
If Davis wins, the State of Georgia will surely appeal, claiming that the District Court lacked the power to decide the issue. If he loses, he’s sure to appeal, along with amici like the NAACP, claiming that the District Court abused its power in rejecting his claim.
Either way, the Supreme Court would eventually be faced with deciding the issue of whether actual innocence is a valid basis for a habeas petition.
It looks to us like Stevens is gaming the system for activist purposes. For the record, we firmly believe that actual innocence should trump procedure and all other legalistic concerns. But it remains to be seen whether he’ll succeed in getting the law to shape itself accordingly.