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Ninth Circuit Holds No Due Process Right Created by California’s Parole Scheme

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has decisively dismissed any lingering hopes that the federal courts might continue to review denials of parole to California prisoners, in order to determine whether such denials were supported by “some evidence” of the prisoner’s current dangerousness as required by state law.

Echoing the words of an appellate panel that had ruled similarly a week earlier, the Ninth Circuit stated that, in the recent decision of Swarthout v. Cooke, 131 S.Ct. 859 (2011) [PLN, March 2011, p.40], the U.S. Supreme Court “was unequivocal in holding that if an inmate seeking parole receives an opportunity to be heard, a notification of the reasons as to denial of parole, and access to their records in advance, that should be the beginning and the end of the inquiry into whether the inmate received [federal] due process.”

California prisoner Kenneth Roberts was convicted in 1986 of second-degree murder. He was denied parole at a 2006 hearing, due to the parole board’s professed concerns about the nature of his offense – at the time, the judicially-approved standard for such denials.

Roberts unsuccessfully sought relief in state courts, claiming that the parole board’s decision was not supported by sufficient evidence that he currently posed an unreasonable risk of danger to society. By 2008, this had become the new standard for parole denials, as clarified by the California Supreme Court in In re Lawrence, 44 Cal.4th 1181, 190 P.3d 535 (Cal. 2008), and as subsequently adopted by the Ninth Circuit in an en banc decision, Hayward v. Marshall, 603 F.3d 546 (9th Cir. 2010) [PLN, June 2010, p.24]. Roberts then filed a habeas petition in federal court.

Following then-existing precedent, the district court granted habeas relief. Subsequently, however, the Supreme Court decided Cooke, which in turn compelled the Ninth Circuit to reverse the district court’s ruling in Roberts’ favor. Driving the proverbial last nail into the coffin, the appellate court emphasized that it “is no part of the Ninth Circuit’s business” whether, in denying parole, California follows its own statutory standards. See: Roberts v. Hartley, 640 F.3d 1042 (9th Cir. 2011).

Two months later, on June 6, 2011, the Ninth Circuit issued a similar ruling in a case involving another parole-related issue for California prisoners, holding that “the Due Process Clause does not require that the Governor hold a second suitability hearing before reversing a parole decision.”

In 2005, 23 years after his conviction for first-degree murder (for which he received a sentence of 27 years to life with the possibility of parole), California state prisoner Robert E. Styre was found suitable for release by the parole board. Several months later, however, the Governor, exercising his authority under the state constitution, reversed the board’s finding of suitability.

Styre filed for habeas corpus relief. In 2007, after his state court petitions had been denied, he filed a habeas petition in federal court, alleging that his due process rights had been violated because the Governor’s reversal of the board’s decision was not supported by “some evidence” that Styre’s release posed an unreasonable risk of current dangerousness. The district court granted his petition.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed. As in Hartley, the appellate court held that beyond the due process requirements for parole hearings described in Cooke, no other process was due under the U.S. Constitution for parole denials.

As a “second and separate reason” for denying relief, the Ninth Circuit wrote that “because there is no Supreme Court precedent holding that a state governor must conduct a second parole hearing before reversing a parole board’s favorable decision,” the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) precluded granting Styre’s habeas petition. See: Styre v. Adams, 645 F.3d 1106 (9th Cir. 2011).

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Related legal cases

Styre v. Adams

Roberts v. Hartley