Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Habeas Corpus Case Turns on Buttons Worn at Trial

The New York Times
Supreme Court Roundup
Habeas Corpus Case Turns on Buttons Worn at Trial

WASHINGTON, April 17 — During Mathew Musladin's murder trial before a California jury 12 years ago, three members of the victim's family sat in a prominent position behind the prosecutor, wearing buttons that displayed the victim's photograph.

The defense lawyer complained that the buttons would prejudice the jury against Mr. Musladin, a complaint the trial judge rejected. After Mr. Musladin was convicted of killing his former wife's boyfriend, a California appeals court also rejected the argument that the buttons had deprived him of a fair trial. So did the Federal District Court in San Francisco.

But last year, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, also in San Francisco, disagreed, granting Mr. Musladin's petition for a writ of habeas corpus and ordering the state to give him a new trial. The Supreme Court accepted California's appeal on Monday in order to decide whether the appeals court properly applied the rigorous test that Congress set in 1996 for federal court review of state convictions.

The case, which the justices will hear next fall, could therefore have an impact considerably beyond the unusual facts — facts that are so unusual that there is no directly applicable Supreme Court precedent. Indeed, that is the basis of the state's appeal.

The 1996 law, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, imposed a new limit on federal courts' consideration of state prison inmates' petitions for habeas corpus, which are challenges to the constitutionality of a conviction or sentence. Such petitions could be granted, Congress wrote, only if the highest state court to consider the case had issued a decision that was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States."

In looking at the button question, the Ninth Circuit explored Supreme Court precedents that were rather wide of the mark, including, for example, a 1976 case holding that it was inherently prejudicial to force a defendant to appear before the jury in prison clothes. For guidance on what spectators, as opposed to prisoners, may or may not wear, the appeals court turned to one of its own precedents, a 1990 case called Norris v. Risley that overturned a rape conviction because several women in the spectators' gallery had worn buttons that said "Women Against Rape."

Writing for the Ninth Circuit in the Musladin case, Judge Stephen Reinhardt acknowledged that the Norris decision was not a Supreme Court precedent. But he said it was "persuasive" evidence of an underlying principle of federal law, derived from relevant Supreme Court decisions that deemed prejudice against a defendant to be "inherent" because of an "impermissible factor" in the courtroom.

In its Supreme Court appeal, Carey v. Musladin, No. 05-785, California is arguing that the Ninth Circuit failed to show proper deference to the state court and ignored the requirement of the 1996 federal statute that "the only source of clearly established law" is the United State Supreme Court.

These were among the other developments at the court on Monday.

Refugee Status

In a unanimous, unsigned opinion, the court overturned a ruling by the Ninth Circuit that a family of white South Africans was eligible for consideration as refugees.

The four members of the family, whose last name is Thomas, had told immigration officials that they feared persecution in South Africa because a relative, known as "Boss Ronnie," was known for mistreating black workers at his construction company. The family recounted several instances of vandalism to which they had been subjected. An immigration judge, in a decision affirmed by the Board of Immigration Appeals, denied asylum and found the Thomases eligible for deportation.

In overturning the immigration board, the Ninth Circuit found that the family met the definition of "a particular social group," one of the categories that the Immigration and Nationality Act makes potentially eligible for asylum. The appeals court then sent the case back to the immigration board for an examination of the particulars of the Thomases' case.

In Gonzales v. Thomas, No. 05-552, the government appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the appeals court had usurped the immigration agency's role in assessing whether kinship should be treated as an eligible asylum category. The justices agreed. Whether "persons related to Boss Ronnie" should be deemed a "particular social group" was for immigration officials, and not judges, to decide in the first instance, the opinion said.

Chinese Detainees

Without comment, the court turned down an appeal filed on behalf of two Chinese Muslims, members of the Uighur ethnic minority, who are being detained at the United States Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The two men, Abu Bakker Qassim and Adel Abdu' Al-Hakim, were captured four years ago in Pakistan and were determined more than a year ago not to be enemy combatants. They are seeking release from confinement but do not want to be returned to China. The Federal District Court here ruled in December that even though their continued detention was unlawful, the men were not entitled to entry into the United States and consequently could not be released.

The federal appeals court here is scheduled to hear an appeal of that ruling on May 8. Lawyers for the men sought immediate Supreme Court review, something the court rarely grants. The lawyers argued that an exception was warranted in this case, Qassim v. Bush, No. 05-892, under the unusual circumstance in which "a federal court has ruled itself impotent to remedy imprisonment by the Executive in a case within its jurisdiction."

Urging the court not to hear the case, the administration said the men's continued detention "does not establish that they are suffering irreparable harm requiring this court's immediate intervention." There were "substantial ongoing diplomatic efforts" to find an "appropriate country" to take the men, the government's brief said, adding: "The Executive's power to detain enemy combatants necessarily includes the authority to wind up detention in an orderly fashion."