On February 22, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, a dispute involving the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which in exchange for federal funding requires that states provide a “free appropriate public education” to children with certain disabilities. E.F., a child who has a severe form of cerebral palsy, was assisted in various daily activities by her service dog Wonder. Officials at Ezra Eby Elementary School, however, refused to allow Wonder to join E.F. in kindergarten, so her parents (the Frys) proceeded to homeschool her instead. They also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), alleging that the exclusion of E.F.’s service dog violated federal disabilities laws, including Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. OCR sided with the Frys and Ezra Eby relented. Concerned about possible resentment from Ezra Eby officials, however, the Frys instead enrolled E.F. in a different elementary school that had welcomed Wonder. The Frys also filed suit against Ezra Eby’s local and regional school districts (and principal) in federal district court, seeking declaratory and monetary relief for the alleged violations of Title II and section 504. The District Court dismissed the suit on the grounds that the Frys had failed first to exhaust administrative procedures available under the IDEA, as required by section 1415(l) of that law. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, concluding that section 1415(l)’s exhaustion requirement applies whenever the plaintiff’s alleged harms are “educational” in nature.
The Supreme Court, however, granted certiorari to address confusion in the courts of appeals as to the scope of section 1415(l)’s exhaustion requirement. By a vote of 8-0, the Court vacated the judgment of the Sixth Circuit and remanded the case. In an opinion delivered by Justice Kagan, the Court held that exhaustion of the administrative procedures established by the IDEA is unnecessary when the gravamen of the plaintiff’s suit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee of a “free appropriate public education.” The Court then remanded the case to the Sixth Circuit for application of that standard to the Frys’ complaint in the first instance: is their complaint fundamentally about denial of a free appropriate public education, or about something else? Justice Kagan’s majority opinion was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Thomas joined.
To discuss the case, we have Daniel Woodring, principal at Woodring Law Firm.
On January 9, 2017, the Supreme Court decided White v. Pauly, a petition involving a denial of qualified immunity to law enforcement officers in a civil rights dispute. In October 2011, officers Kevin Truesdale and Michael Mariscal went to the home of Daniel and Samuel Pauly to investigate a complaint made by several drivers that Daniel had been driving erratically that evening. The officers entered the Pauly property while a third officer, Ray White, remained near the highway in case Daniel returned there. Truesdale and Mariscal did not find Daniel’s truck, but they did notice lights on in one of two houses on the property. Upon approaching the building covertly they spotted two men moving around inside, and then requested that Officer White join them. When the Paulys became aware that strangers were present outside there was a verbal confrontation; according to the officers, the officers self-identified as police and threatened to enter the house if the brothers did not come out. It appears however, that neither Pauly heard the self-identification. Just as White was arriving the brothers warned that they had firearms. Upon hearing the warning, White took cover behind a stone wall fifty feet from the house. Daniel then fired two shotgun blasts out the back door and when Samuel pointed a handgun out the window in White’s direction, Mariscal fired at him but missed. Several seconds later White also fired and hit Samuel, killing him. Samuel Pauly’s estate and Daniel Pauly sued the officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging an excessive use of force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied qualified immunity to the officers and a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed. The majority reasoned that, taking the plaintiffs’ version of the facts as true, a reasonable person in the position of Officers Mariscal and Truesdale should have understood that their conduct might cause the Paulys to use deadly force in defense of their home. As to Officer White, the majority concluded that while he did not participate in much of the lead up to the shootout, a reasonable officer in his position would have believed a verbal warning was required given that the stone wall afforded him secure cover.
The Supreme Court granted the officers’ petition for certiorari, vacated the judgment of the Tenth Circuit, and remanded the case. Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” On the record described by the Tenth Circuit, the Supreme Court held, Officer White did not violate clearly established law. But because the parties disputed whether White actually arrived on the scene several minutes before the shooting started and should have known that the other officers had not properly identified themselves, the Court left this potential alternative ground for affirmance--as well as whether Truesdale and Mariscal were entitled to qualified immunity in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling--for further consideration by the Tenth Circuit on remand. Justice Ginsburg issued a concurring opinion.
To discuss the case, we have Josh Skinner, Of Counsel with Fanning, Harper, Martinson, Brandt & Kutchin, P.C.
In June, the Supreme Court issued per curiam opinions in two habeas cases: Jenkins v. Hutton and Virginia v. LeBlanc. In today’s episode, we will be discussing the opinions in both cases.
Jenkins v. Hutton
More than thirty years ago, an Ohio jury convicted Percy Hutton of aggravated murder, attempted murder, and kidnaping. The jury findings included aggravating circumstances that permitted imposition of the death penalty or life imprisonment. During the penalty phase of the proceedings, the jury was instructed that it could recommend a death sentence only if it unanimously found that the State had “prove[d] beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances, of which [Hutton] was found guilty, outweigh[ed] the [mitigating factors].” The jury recommended death, the trial court accepted that recommendation, and Hutton’s death sentence was affirmed on direct appeal. He eventually filed a habeas petition, arguing that the trial court denied him due process because it failed to tell the penalty phase jurors that, when weighing aggravating mitigating factors, they could consider only the two aggravating factors they had found during the guilt phase of the trial. As Hutton had not objected to the jury instructions at trial or raised this issue on direct appeal, the district court dismissed his habeas petition on grounds of procedural default. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, however, concluding that it could excuse the procedural default in the interests of avoiding a miscarriage of justice. Hutton, the Sixth Circuit argued, had “show[n] by clear and convincing evidence that, but for a constitutional error, no reasonable jury would have found [him] eligible for the death penalty under the applicable state law.”
In a per curiam opinion issued on June 19, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Sixth Circuit and remanded the case. The Sixth Circuit erred in reaching the merits of Hutton’s claim, the Court concluded, because to overcome a procedural default on fundamental miscarriage of justice grounds the focus should be on whether a properly instructed jury could have recommended death, not simply whether any alleged error might have affected the jury’s verdict.
Virginia v. LeBlanc
In 1999, Dennis LeBlanc, who was then 16, raped a 62-year-old woman and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2003 by a Virginia court. Although Virginia had abolished parole, the state had replaced it with a “geriatric release” program for the conditional release of older inmates under some circumstances. In 2010, however, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Graham v. Florida that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses from being sentenced to life without parole. Although states would not be required to guarantee eventual freedom to nonhomicide juvenile inmates, the Court explained, they must still offer juvenile offenders “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Invoking the Graham decision, LeBlanc filed a motion in Virginia state court to vacate his sentence. The state court denied relief, relying upon the Virginia Supreme Court’s prior decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, which had concluded that Virginia’s geriatric release program satisfied Graham’s parole requirement for juvenile nonhomicide offenders. The Virginia Supreme Court declined review of LeBlanc’s case and he then filed a federal habeas petition arguing that the Virginia courts’ position regarding geriatric release and Graham had fundamentally misapplied federal law. The district court agreed and granted relief. A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed, and Virginia sought certiorari.
In a per curiam opinion issued on June 12, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Fourth Circuit, concluding that the Virginia courts had not applied the Graham rule unreasonably. To satisfy the habeas standard, the Supreme Court noted, the ruling in question must be “objectively unreasonable, not merely wrong; even clear error will not suffice.” And it was not objectively unreasonable, the Court indicated, for the state courts to conclude that, because the geriatric release program employed normal parole factors, it satisfied Graham’s requirement that juveniles convicted of a nonhomicide crime have a meaningful opportunity to receive parole. Justice Ginsburg filed a concurring opinion.
And now, to discuss the cases, we have Ron Eisenberg, Deputy District Attorney for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.
On April 3, 2017, the Supreme Court decided McLane Co., Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 2008, Damiana Ochoa filed a sex discrimination charge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against her former employer McLane Co., Inc., a supply-chain services company, when she failed a physical evaluation three times after returning from maternity leave. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) launched an investigation into Ochoa’s charge, but McLane declined the EEOC’s request for “pedigree information,” meaning names, Social Security numbers, addresses, and telephone numbers of those employees who had taken the physical evaluation. The EEOC then expanded its investigation into McLane’s operations nationwide and possible age discrimination, issuing subpoenas to McLane for pedigree information regarding these matters too. McLane refused to provide this information as well, and the EEOC then filed actions in federal district court to enforce the subpoenas issued regarding both Ochoa’s charge and the EEOC’s own age discrimination charge. The District Court quashed the subpoenas, finding the pedigree information irrelevant to the charges, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, applying a plenary or “de novo” standard of review, reversed. Other U.S. Courts of Appeals, however, apply a more deferential “abuse of discretion” standard in such situations, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the split among the Courts of Appeals.
By a vote of 7-1, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and remanded the case. In an opinion delivered by Justice Sotomayor, the court held that a district court’s decision whether to enforce or quash a subpoena issued by the EEOC should be reviewed for abuse of discretion, not de novo. Justice Sotomayor’s opinion was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Alito, Breyer, Kagan, Kennedy, and Thomas. Justice Ginsburg filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.
And now, to discuss the case, we have Ellen Springer, an Associate at Baker Botts, LLP.
In June 2017, the Supreme Court decided two cases involving habeas corpus petitions filed by state prisoners challenging the validity of their convictions and/or sentences: Davila v. Davis and McWilliams v. Dunn.
The petition in Davila v. Davis involved a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. Erick Davila was convicted in a Texas court of capital murder. Although his trial attorney had objected to one of the court’s jury instructions on intent, the court had overruled the objection. On direct appeal his appellate counsel raised various claims, but did not challenge the jury instruction ruling. His conviction and sentence were affirmed by the state’s highest criminal court, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied cert. Davila then initiated a collateral attack on his conviction: he sought habeas relief in state court, but his attorney challenged neither the jury instruction ruling nor the failure of his appellate counsel to raise the alleged instructional error on direct appeal. Texas’ highest criminal court ultimately denied relief and the U.S. Supreme Court again denied cert. Davila next raised a habeas claim in federal court, alleging that his appellate counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to challenge the allegedly erroneous jury instruction on direct appeal. Although his failure to have raised that claim in his state habeas petition ordinarily constituted a fatal procedural default, Davila argued for an exception on the grounds that the failure was itself the result of ineffective assistance by his state habeas counsel. The federal district court denied Davila’s petition and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied a certificate of appealability for further review. The Supreme Court granted certiorari, however, to consider whether the ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel provided cause to excuse the procedural default.
By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Fifth Circuit. In an opinion delivered by Justice Thomas, the Court held that the ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel does not provide cause to excuse the procedural default of claims of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. Justice Thomas’ majority opinion was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Alito, and Gorsuch. Justice Breyer filed a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan.
The petition in McWilliams v. Dunn involved the scope of a state’s duty, identified by the Supreme Court in its 1985 decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, to provide an indigent defendant with access to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense, and independent from the prosecution, to effectively “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” In 1986, James McWilliams, Jr. was convicted by an Alabama jury of capital murder. Although a state commission, convened after McWilliams’s counsel requested a psychiatric evaluation, found that he was competent to stand trial and had not been suffering from mental illness at the time of his alleged crime, his counsel had also asked for neurological and neuropsychological testing while the parties awaited sentencing. The examining doctor concluded that McWilliams had some genuine neuropsychological problems, and his attorney also received various updated mental health records just before the sentencing hearing convened. Although the attorney sought a continuance and the assistance of someone with psychological expertise to evaluate this new material, the trial court denied those requests and sentenced McWilliams to death. Alabama’s appellate courts affirmed his conviction and sentence on direct appeal, and his effort to obtain state postconviction relief also failed. On federal habeas review, the district court found that the requirements described in Ake had been satisfied and denied McWilliams relief. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, but the Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider whether the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals’ determination that McWilliams got all the assistance to which Ake entitled him was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law” under the federal habeas statute.
By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit and remanded the case. In an opinion delivered by Justice Breyer, the Court indicated that “Alabama’s provision of mental health assistance fell  dramatically short of what Ake requires” and therefore concluded that the Alabama court decision affirming McWilliams’s conviction and sentence was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.” Although the Eleventh Circuit had alternatively held that any error by the Alabama courts lacked the “substantial and injurious effect or influence” required to warrant a grant of habeas relief, the Supreme Court indicated that the Eleventh Circuit should reconsider on remand “whether access to the type of meaningful assistance in evaluating, preparing, and presenting the defense that Ake requires would have mattered” to the outcome of McWilliams’s case. Justice Breyer’s majority opinion was joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which the Chief Justice and Justices Thomas and Gorsuch joined.
And now, to discuss the cases, we have Joseph Tartakovsky, Deputy Solicitor General for the State of Nevada.