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California Federal Judge Denies Habeas Petitions after Sitting on Them for Years

A federal judge’s treatment of prisoner habeas petitions gives new meaning to the old adage that justice delayed is justice denied. U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson, who was named to the federal judiciary in 2002 by President George W. Bush, has established a track record of allowing potentially meritorious habeas corpus petitions to languish in his court in the Central District of California for years.

In July 2011, the Daily Journal, a legal publication, reported that Judge Anderson had sat on three habeas cases for periods ranging from 5½ to 8 years after magistrate judges had recommended granting relief.

California state prisoner Omer Harland Gallion filed a habeas petition claiming that he had been wrongfully convicted. A magistrate judge recommended that his petition be granted. However, Gallion died in prison six years later, in 2010, still waiting for Judge Anderson to act. When an attorney brought Gallion’s death to his attention, Anderson finally did something – he dismissed the petition as moot.

Two other prisoners’ petitions were denied on the same day in July 2011 that the Daily Journal asked Judge Anderson to account for the lengthy delays in habeas cases in his court. For prisoner Adilao Juan Ortiz, the delay was 5½ years. Prisoner Randall Amado waited 8 years. In both cases, a magistrate judge had recommended granting the petitions.

Amado was convicted of felony murder based on the testimony of a rival gang member – a convicted felon facing his own murder trial who had obvious reasons to shade the truth in a manner favorable to prosecutors in Amado’s case. In 2003 a magistrate judge found that the unreliability of that witness had rendered Amado’s trial fundamentally unfair, and recommended that Judge Anderson order Amado’s release if the state did not retry him.

Four years into his long, ultimately unsuccessful wait for Anderson to enter a ruling, Amado was able to get San Diego defense attorney John Lanahan to submit a motion requesting his appointment as volunteer counsel. Judge Anderson never ruled on the motion, leaving Lanahan – not to mention Amado – extremely frustrated.

Lanahan explained that had Anderson denied the motion, he would have been able to appeal it on Amado’s behalf. Lanahan unabashedly expressed his view that Judge Anderson harbored bias against prisoners. “There is consistent animus with Percy Anderson. He puts you in a place where you can’t get there from here,” he said, adding, “inaction is definitely worse than denial.”

Habeas petitioners are rarely successful. According to a 2006 study by Nancy J. King, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, while some 17,000 federal habeas petitions are filed by prisoners each year, only 1 in 284 is granted – a success rate of just .3%. Thus, when a judge routinely ignores a magistrate’s recommendation for relief on the rare occasions when granting a petition appears to be warranted, there may be cause for legitimate concern regarding the judge’s impartiality.

Not surprisingly, the Chief Judge of the Los Angeles-based Central District, Audrey B. Collins, defended Anderson, calling him “an excellent judge.” She described the long delays that have characterized her colleague’s handling of habeas petitions which magistrates have deemed meritorious as “extremely unfortunate,” but attributed such delays to the district’s strained caseload.

In a statement that itself strains credulity, Chief Judge Collins said, “I have absolutely no reason to believe there was any bias that permeated [Judge Anderson’s] handling [of the long-delayed petitions] or played any part whatsoever in this.”

Others are more skeptical than Collins. University of Pittsburgh law professor Arthur Hellman, an expert on the federal judiciary, described the delays as “troubling.” Noting that the lengthy delays have gone unexplained, he observed, “It certainly raises concerns that are going to persist as long as there’s no explanation.”

Under the Civil Justice Reform Act, federal judges must report cases on their docket that have been pending three years or more. As of mid-2011, Anderson’s most recent report listed 18 such cases; of those, 17 involved habeas petitions or other actions filed by prisoners.

Sean Kennedy, the federal public defender for the Central District, the largest public defender agency in the nation, said that when a federal district court judge promptly accepts recommendations to deny habeas petitions (as Judge Anderson does), but then “sits for years on the very few recommendations to grant relief, it causes petitioners to question the fairness of the proceedings.”

According to The Robing Room, a website “where judges are judged,” Judge Anderson is listed among the 10 lowest-ranked jurists in the country.

Hellman and other judicial scholars, along with defense attorneys, have called for a misconduct inquiry. “The misconduct process,” Hellman noted, “doesn’t exist just to discipline judges who do unethical things, but also to assure the public that the judiciary cares, as an institution, that individual judges are doing their jobs without any kind of animus or improper attitudes.”

Not that the disciplinary process for federal judges is particularly effective, as it is overseen and controlled by members of the federal judiciary. [See: PLN, August 2009, p.1].

Sources: Los Angeles Times,,

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