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Monday, June 12, 2017

SCOTUS Symposium: Summary Reversal in Virginia v. LeBlanc

The Supreme Court released a new batch of opinions today, and these are a bit more interesting than the ones last week.  We have Justice Gorsuch's first opinion in Henson v. Santander, about the FDCPA; a big case about class actions in Microsoft v. Baker (one of the cases that kept being put off after Justice Scalia's death); a significant equal protection decision in Sessions v. Morales-Santana; and Sandoz v. Amgen, a case involving some complicated FDA issues.  Particularly interesting to me, though, was a summary reversal in Virginia v. LeBlanc, which involves an interesting follow-on question from Graham v. Florida. Basically, Graham held that juvenile defendants who didn't commit homicide can't receive life without parole; instead, they are entitled to "some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." But the Court didn't decide in Graham what that "meaningful opportunity" looks like exactly, and it hasn't provided further clarification (yet). So lower courts have been working that through in Graham challenges brought by juvenile non-homicide offenders.

LeBlanc is one of those follow-on cases. The defendant, a Virginia prisoner, was serving a life without parole sentence for a rape he committed at age 16. He challenged his sentence under Graham, and lost in the state courts; a state trial court concluded that he had a "meaningful opportunity" for release: though Virginia had abolished parole for offenders like LeBlanc, it has a geriatric release program that enables older inmates to get out of prison if certain conditions apply, and the state court found that this program satisfied Graham. On federal habeas review, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the state courts erred, and that the geriatric release program wasn't enough to satisfy Graham. Today, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed that decision. My thoughts after the jump.

The opinion is pretty straightforward, and in my view right. Not because it's totally clear that Virginia's geriatric release program is an acceptable procedure under Graham, but because of the significant restrictions on federal habeas review for state prisoners. Under AEDPA, federal courts aren't supposed to contradict state court decisions denying relief unless those decisions unreasonably apply clearly established federal law. Here, it's at least a hard and open question whether Virginia's procedure satisfies Graham; even if the best answer is that it doesn't, it's not unreasonable for a state court to conclude otherwise. 

I think there is one fair criticism of LeBlanc, although it's not exactly a criticism on the merits. LeBlanc was a summary reversal, where the Court just decides the case on the basis of the certiorari filings. The Court does a handful of these a year, probably no more than a dozen. While I have no problem with the Court using its power to summarily reverse when appropriate, the Court seems to prioritize certain issues over others. As symposium co-participant Will Baude has shown, the Court has been eager to summarily reverse in cases where lower courts misapplied AEDPA by granting habeas relief. The Court has also been pretty eager to reverse in cases that denied qualified immunity to police-officer defendants. While there are potentially good reasons for the Justices to use their energies in this way, the problem is that the Court, as Will explains, doesn't explain why it is using its resources as it does. And that creates a possible inference that the Justices aren't applying an evenhanded standard ("summarily reverse if the decision below is really really wrong") but instead just think errors in one direction are more important than others. Justice Sotomayor herself recently accused her colleagues of being inconsistent in the qualified immunity context, noting the "disturbing trend regarding the use of this Court’s resources" that it has "not hesitated to summarily reverse courts for wrongly denying officers the protection of qualified immunity in cases involving the use of force" while it "rarely intervene[s] where courts wrongly afford officers the benefit of qualified immunity in these same cases." 

The objection, to be clear, doesn't go to the merits of the Court's decisions summarily reversing; most of them seem right on the law and perhaps even uncontroversially so. The objection is that by only summarily reversing for certain kinds of errors but not others, the Court subtly pushes the law in one direction without explaining what it's doing. I don't think LeBlanc makes that problem worse. But it is yet another state-on-top AEDPA reversal.  So it may signal that, with Justice Gorsuch aboard, the Court's summary reversal practices aren't changing anytime soon. 

Posted by Daniel Epps on June 12, 2017 at 11:35 AM in 2016-17 End of Term | Permalink

Comments

Contra to what you say ("the problem is that the Court, as Will explains, doesn't explain why it is using its resources as it does"), I think Part III of the opinion at 5-6 actually goes out of its way to address why the Court's using its resources on this case in a way that's rather unusual; they even purport to explain why they aren't "waiting until a more substantial split of authority develops." You may not love the explanation; I don't know if I really understand what "legal quagmire" they're talking about, but there is at least a real oddity that they've cured.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Jun 12, 2017 3:48:19 PM

So, unlike other areas of law for which the Supreme Court has a duty to apply, there is some special "legal quagmire" in this specific area that warrants a noticeable greater use of summary reversals?

I don't know enough about all the areas of the law in question but just providing a reason might not REALLY fully make clear the Supreme Court (or the controlling majority with the rest going along, but not always without comment or disagreement -- even here RBG briefly doing so) is making a resources policy decision & not merely calling balls and strikes.

But, perhaps I'm just being too suspicious.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 13, 2017 9:21:04 AM

So, unlike other areas of law for which the Supreme Court has a duty to apply, there is some special "legal quagmire" in this specific area that warrants a noticeable greater use of summary reversals?

I don't know enough about all the areas of the law in question but just providing a reason might not REALLY fully make clear the Supreme Court (or the controlling majority with the rest going along, but not always without comment or disagreement -- even here RBG briefly doing so) is making a resources policy decision & not merely calling balls and strikes.

But, perhaps I'm just being too suspicious.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 13, 2017 9:21:10 AM

Well, like I said (kind of), the Court definitely doesn't make its reasons fully clear. The so-called quagmire is really just an awkward hassle for prisoners that offends certain federalist sensibilities, the hassle being that the Virginia Supreme Court is dead-set on saying that Virginia's geriatric-release program is okay, and until the other day, a district judge in Virginia would be bound to grant habeas relief - after a prisoner exhausted his appeals and post-conviction remedies in state court - on the theory that the geriatric-release program isn't okay. The quagmire, I guess, is that though the Fourth Circuit probably doesn't bind the Virginia Supreme Court, at some point Virginia courts might feel they might as well kowtow to the Fourth Circuit because if they don't their decisions will always be, practically speaking, abrogated in habeas. Well, one can really say that of any question where a Circuit's disagreed on habeas review with a state supreme court on some point of criminal procedure or punishment, so the argument probably proves too much. The only quagmire I see is that the poor prisoners had to take a certain loss in state court in advance of a win in habeas; the Court, so to speak, levels that down by saying that they're going to lose in habeas on these claims too. I can certainly imagine, however, that people on the Court sincerely felt the state/federal conflict in Virginia was a serious problem that merited their quick attention. But *anyway,* I do think that passage is a response - though not a completely persuasive one - to the criticisms that the Court summarily reverses grants of habeas relief but not denials and doesn't explain why. The quagmire is a difference between the former and the latter. In the latter cases, just in case I'm not being clear, state and federal courts agree.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Jun 14, 2017 1:42:03 AM

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