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U.S. Supreme Court: No Federal Habeas Relief for California Lifer Parole Denials

by John E. Dannenberg

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court (USSC) summarily reversed rulings by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in two California parole cases in which the Ninth Circuit had overruled state court denials of habeas corpus relief from challenged parole denials by life-sentenced prisoners (“lifers”), and had invoked authority under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 to grant federal habeas corpus relief.

Damon Cooke had been sentenced to 7 years to life for a 1991 attempted first-degree murder. He was denied parole at his 2002 suitability hearing. Cooke petitioned the state Superior Court, which denied relief when it found “some evidence” to support the Board’s denial. His petitions to the California Court of Appeal and California Supreme Court were rejected.

The U.S. District Court denied Cooke’s subsequent 28 U.S.C. § 2254 habeas petition but the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that California’s parole statute created a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause, and that “California’s ‘some evidence’ requirement” was a “component” of that federally-protected liberty interest. The Ninth Circuit then concluded that the state courts had made an “unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence” under § 2254(d)(2) by finding any evidence that Cooke would pose a threat to public safety if released. See: Cooke v. Solis, 606 F.3d 1206 (9th Cir. 2010).

Elijah Clay had been sentenced to 7 years to life for a 1978 first-degree murder. He was granted parole at his 2003 suitability hearing but California’s Governor reversed, asserting that evidence in the Board’s record supported the reasons for his decision. Clay unsuccessfully petitioned all of the state courts, which denied relief upon finding “some evidence” to support the Governor’s denial. The U.S. District Court disagreed, granting Clay’s 28 U.S.C. § 2254 habeas petition based on an “unreasonable determination of the facts,” and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. See: Clay v. Kane, 384 Fed.Appx. 544 (9th Cir. 2010).

The USSC granted certiorari in both cases and consolidated them. The Court observed that the Ninth Circuit had tried to sweep into § 2254’s reach the enforcement of a state law-created liberty interest in parole, under the guise that California’s “some evidence” state court review standard was “a component” of a state liberty interest that was subject to federal due process protection.

However, the USSC held that the federal courts’ review of the state court findings (that there was “some evidence” of lifers’ current dangerousness if released on parole), to determine whether such findings were unreasonable in light of the evidence, amounted to a redetermination of the merits of the state court rulings, which is prohibited. “Federal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state law,” the Court wrote. Also, “[a] mere error of state law is not a denial of due process.”

The USSC agreed that California law does create a liberty interest in parole, much like that found in Board of Pardons v. Allen, 482 U.S. 369 (1987) and Greenholz v. Inmates of Neb. Penal and Correctional Complex, 442 U.S. 1 (1979). But in those cases, the USSC held that all that was protected by the Due Process Clause were the procedures used by the state; e.g., the opportunity to be heard, or a statement of reasons why parole was denied. “The Constitution does not require more,” the Court said, finding that Cooke and Clay had received more than this minimally-required due process.

Sharpening its criticism of the Ninth Circuit, the USSC wrote, “No opinion of ours supports converting California’s “some evidence” rule into a substantive federal requirement.” The Court held that “the minimum procedures adequate for due process protection of [California’s liberty] interest are those set forth in Greenholz.” Indeed, the USSC called California’s “some evidence” standard “a procedure beyond what the Constitution demands.”

The Supreme Court continued, “Because the only federal right at issue is procedural, the relevant inquiry is what process Cooke and Clay received, not whether the state court decided the case correctly. The Ninth Circuit’s questionable finding that there was no evidence in the record supporting the parole denials is irrelevant unless there is a federal right at stake, as § 2254 requires.”

Voicing its obvious frustration with the Ninth Circuit, the USSC concluded, “The short of the matter is that the responsibility for assuring that the constitutionally adequate procedures governing California’s parole system are properly applied rests with the California courts, and is no part of the Ninth Circuit’s business.” The appellate court’s rulings were therefore reversed.

This decision will have a profound impact on the estimated 400-500 California lifer petitions currently pending before U.S. District Courts, the Ninth Circuit and on petition for certiorari before the USSC. See: Swarthout v. Cooke, 131 S Ct. 859, 562 U.S. ___ (2011).

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Related legal case

Swarthout v. Cooke