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Oregon PCR Judgments Must Satisfy "Clear-Statement Rule"

The Oregon Court of Appeals held that trial court judgments denying post-conviction relief (PCR) must satisfy the "clear-statement rule" required by Oregon law.

ORS 138.640(1) mandates that a PCR judgment "must clearly state the grounds on which the cause was determined, and whether a state or federal question was presented and decided."  The Oregon Supreme Court interpreted that provision as imposing "a clear-statement rule" in Datt v. Hill, 341 Or 672, 227 P3d 714 (2010).

Datt explained that the purpose of ORS 138.640(l)'s "clear-statement rule" was "to produce a judgment that will be easily understood by a federal court reviewing the judgment" on federal habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

Datt held that to satisfy the clear-statement rule, a PCR judgment denying relief must minimally: (1) identify all claims considered by the court and make separate ruling on each claim; (2) declare whether the denial of each claim is on procedural grounds or the merits; and (3) make the legal bases for denial of relief apparent.

Oregon PCR claims must typically be framed as ineffective assistance of trial or appellate counsel claims. Thus, most PCR claims have two elements: (1) deficient performance; and (2) prejudice. Datt requires that a PCR judgment "make the legal bases for denial of relief apparent" by identifying each element that the court determined was not met.

"When success on the merits obligates a petitioner to make two distinct legal showings," Datt explained, "a court does not clearly state the legal bases for its denial of each claim . . . unless it explains, with regard to each claim . . . whether petitioner failed to prove one (and if so, which one) or both of those requirements. "

Jamie Soderstrom filed a PCR petition alleging three claims: ineffective assistance of trial counsel in violation of the state and federal constitution (claim 1); ineffective assistance of appellate counsel in violation of the state and federal constitution (claim 2); and that the prosecution failed to disclose exculpatory evidence in violation of his due process rights under Brady v. Maryland, 313 US 82, 83 S.Ct. 1194 (1963)(claim 3).

The PCR court denied relief on all three claims and Soderstrom appealed, arguing that the PCR judgment failed to comply with ORS 138.640(l)'s clear-statement rule as construed in Datt.

The Court of Appeals conducted a claim-by-claim assessment of the judgment's compliance with Datt. It found that Datt's first and second requirements were satisfied, but the PCR court failed to satisfy Datt's third requirement with respect to Claims 2 and 3.

"Although the judgment clearly states how the post-conviction court ruled with respect to each element of Claim 1," the court found that "the judgment is silent as to how the post­conviction court ruled with respect to the elements of the appellate-counsel" and Brady claims.

The court rejected the State's argument that the judgment adequately complied with Datt because the court incorporated by reference the arguments in the State's PCR trial memorandum. "Arguments by lawyers are not rulings by courts," the court declared. "Although it may be possible to glean the basis for a post-conviction court's rejection of a particular claim by reviewing  the oral or written  arguments of counsel, the point of ORS 138.640(1)'s clear­statement rule, according to Datt, is to produce judgments that will be easily understood by a federal court reviewing the judgment under " § 2254. "A judgment requiring a reviewing court to translate the arguments of counsel contained in a different document into a ruling by the post-conviction court is not one that is 'easily' understood; it requires work and some degree of speculation to understand."

The court noted, however, that the PCR court may place the responsibility for translating persuasive arguments by counsel into a Datt-compliant judgment under ORS 18.035 and UTCR 5.100.

The court also rejected the State's argument that rigid enforcement of Datt's requirements should be declined because Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 131 S. Ct. 770 (2001) reveals that Datt's interpretation of ORS 138.640(1) "was founded on a misunderstanding of the requirements of federal habeas corpus practice."

"That is an argument more appropriately directed to the Oregon Supreme Court," the court explained. "Unless the Supreme Court modifies its holding in Datt, we, as an intermediate appellate court, must adhere to it." See: Soderstrom v. Premo, 274 Or App 624, _ P.3d _ (2015).

The court also issued two companion cases addressing preservation requirements for Datt challenges. In Gonzales v. Taylor, 274 Or App 631, _ P3d _ (2015), the State conceded the Datt violation, but asserted that the court should not reach the unpreserved issue.

The court rejected that argument because Gonzales "did not have the opportunity as a practical matter, to raise the issues with the form of judgment to the post-conviction court." Nothing in the court's oral pronouncement of judgment alerted Gonzales "that he should point out to the trial court that Datt required the written judgment to say more." In Dudrov v. State, 274 Or App 636, _ P3d _ (2015), however, the court agreed that the Datt challenge was unpreserved and refused to reach it. The difference being that the Dudrov PCR court employed a process that permitted the parties to object to the form of the judgment. "Consistently with ORS 18.035(1) and UTCR 5.100, the court directed the state's attorney to prepare the judgment and share it with petitioner's attorney before transmitting it to the court," the Court of Appeals explained. "That process provided petitioner with the opportunity to raise any issues with the form of judgment to the court before it was entered." Yet, Petitioner failed to assert the Datt violation. "Under those circumstances," the court concluded, "petitioner was not excused from the obligation to preserve her assigned error."

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Related legal cases

Soderstrom v. Premo

Gonzales v. Taylor

Dudrov v. State

Datt v. Hill

Harrington v. Richter

Brady v. Maryland