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U.S. S.Ct. to Hear Prison and Parole Cases

The 1994-95 term of the United States Supreme Court began on October 3, 1994. Among the cases scheduled for hearing by the Supreme Court are two cases previously reported in PLN which will have wide ranging effect.

California Department of Corrections v. Morales, 93-1462, is the state's appeal from the ninth circuit ruling at 16 F.3d 1001 [See: July, 1994, PLN] in favor of Morales. Morales is a California state prisoner who was convicted of murder for the second time in 1980. At the time of his second conviction California law provided for annual parole hearings once a prisoner was eligible. This law was later amended to allow for parole hearings every three years. Morales went to his first parole hearing in 1989 and was scheduled for another one in 1992. He filed a habeas corpus petition challenging the change in parole hearings as a violation of the Ex Post Facto clause of the constitution. The Ex Post Facto clause prohibits increasing the penalty or punishment of crimes after they were committed or criminalizing conduct after the fact.

The ninth circuit court of appeals agreed with Morales and granted his writ of habeas corpus, stating that he was entitled to annual parole hearings. As previously reported in PLN, there is a deep conflict in the ninth circuit on this issue. In Powell v. Ducharme, 998 F.2d 710 (9th Cir. 1993), the appeals court held that a sentencing scheme in Washington effectively extended the parole eligibility hearings of several hundred life sentenced prisoners but did not violate the Ex Post Facto clause. However, in Flemming v. Oregon Bd. of Parole, 998 F.2d 721 (9th Cir. 1993), the court ruled just the opposite. Holding that a change in the frequency of Oregon parole hearings was an Ex Post Facto violation. The Supreme Court decision should eliminate this split within the ninth circuit. This decision will also have an effect on the still pending Powell litigation [See: September, 1994, PLN]. The sole issue presented for review by the court is: "Does retrospective reduction in frequency of parole eligibility hearings violate prohibition against ex post facto laws contained in Article I, Section 9, Clause 3 and Article I, section 10 of the U.S. Constitution?"

An interesting side note, in its 1993-94 term the supreme court agreed to hear an appeal on the Ex Post Facto issue in a fourth circuit case, Roller v. Cavanaugh. After hearing oral argument, the case was removed from the docket and no ruling on the merits was given by the Supreme Court because the South Carolina legislature changed the law.

The sole prison case on the supreme court docket so far (usually the court hears one or two prison cases per term) is Rowe v. DeBruyn, 94-249. The lower court ruling, 17 F.3d 1047 (7th Cir. 1994), held that prisoners have no right to self defense. The case involves an Indiana state prisoner who was infracted and punished by prison officials for fighting off an attempted rape. [See: PLN, July, 1994]. The question presented for review by the supreme court is: "Does prisoner being attacked and raped have fundamental right, protected by the Due Process Clause, to defend himself?"

PLN will report the Supreme Court's decisions in these cases as soon as they are issued.

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Related legal case

California Dept. of Corr. v. Morales