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Friday, July 31, 2009

Certifying Questions to the Supreme Court: Is Seale the Perfect Storm?

By now, you've surely learned from How Appealing or SCOTUSblog of the en banc Fifth Circuit's decision to certify to the Supreme Court the following question: "What statute of limitations applies to a prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 1201 for a kidnaping offense that occurred in 1964 but was not indicted until 2007?"

The merits of this question aside, and the broader political significance of the prosecution of James Ford Seale (in which it arises) notwithstanding, it strikes me that this provides a rare opportunity to reflect upon the utility of this oddest of vehicles through which to obtain Supreme Court review.

The last time the Supreme Court accepted a certified question from a court of appeals was in 1981, in the immediate aftermath of Dames & Moore v. Regan (a case that came to the Court in one big hurry).  In a related (but distinct) case arising out of the Second Circuit (Iran National Airlines Corp. v. Marschalk Co.), the Court answered three questions, two with one word ("yes"), and with cursory citations to Dames & Moore, and a third with a short explanation and a cite. Three Justices (led by Powell) dissented, arguing that the wiser course would have been simply to vacate and remand the Second Circuit's decision for further consideration in light of Dames & Moore, rather than answering the questions abstractly (and without the benefiit of additional briefing and argument).

To me, at least, Powell had it exactly right. Indeed, the Court's far-more-common practice is (as it was in 1981) to send cases back down for full reconsideration (and new briefing in light of the intervening decision) on the assumption that the issues might differ, if ever so slightly (in my view, at least, this was true in Marschalk).  One might justify what the Court did in Marschalk as stemming from the same pressures that led to the quick and decisive resolution of the Iranian claims isssue that prompted Dames & Moore itself, but in the typical case, a "GVR" in light of the new decision seems right on.

Same, too, with the most recent well-known effort by a court of appeals to have the Supreme Court answer a certified question -- the en banc Second Circuit's 2005 certificate in United States v. Penaranda, asking the post-Blakely sentencing question that the Court would soon answer in Booker. There, it was only a matter of time before the question presented would arise on the merits of a properly presented cert. petition, and so the Court knew it could wait, however briefly, for the issue to ripen.

In marked contrast, here we have a pure, discrete, stand-alone legal question wholly unrelated to any other cases currently pending before the Court, and one that would, for obvious reasons, materially advance (and perhaps pretermit) the litigation in the lower courts (the original Fifth Circuit panel would have acquitted Seale). 

To be sure, it would be better if the Fifth Circuit was not evenly divided and was capable of resolving this question on the merits. But where the court of appeals can't act, where the defendant has already been convicted under the arguably time-barred claim, and where the issue may not properly come to the Court in a cert. petition before the defendant is potentially harmed by such a result, it strikes me that we might have the perfect facts for certification.

Put another way, if certification is ever going to be used again, isn't this the case for it?

Posted by Steve Vladeck on July 31, 2009 at 12:41 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Criminal Law, Current Affairs, Steve Vladeck | Permalink


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Re ohwilleke's comment: I'm not so sure that the fact pattern won't reemerge. As I understand it, Congress has recently authorized money for investigations into civil rights era cold cases, and the DoJ is using it. Every count charged under 18 U.S.C. § 1201 will entail the same question, and other statutes may pose a similar pickle. That was one of Seale's arguments for certification, and it's the one that the majority embraced (op. at 7-8).

Posted by: Simon | Aug 5, 2009 8:44:58 AM

I don't follow that argument -- the circuit court is divided 9-9 on the substantive issue. It's possible that a three-judge panel will find other grounds on which to make the case go away, but rather unlikely. Meanwhile, the question of whether this entire prosecution (that has culminated in a conviction) is time-barred will remain unanswered until and unless the Supreme Court steps in, either by accepting the certificate or by granting a properly filed cert. petition...

Posted by: Anon | Jul 31, 2009 3:10:13 PM

Another counterargument is that this is the sort of statutory construction issue that the intermediate courts of appeal decide all the time. It may be an issue of first impression, but it had little else to distinguish it and involves a fact pattern unlikely to recur with frequency.

This is not an "above my pay grade" issue of the type that Judge Easterbrook described himself as facing in the recent 7th Circuit decision on the incorporation of the Second Amendment, where he conceptualized the issue as whether old U.S. Supreme Court precedents related to the issue had been called into question by the Heller case.

It is also not a question where extraordinary haste in a high profile case is important, as it might be, for example, in a case that impacts an important election (e.g. the validity of a conviction of a leading candidate for a state governorship where that would disqualify the candidate from running), privilege assertions by a President in response to a subpeona, or perhaps an interstate property claim that impacts an imminent U.S. hosting of a World Fair or an Olympic event.

This offense occurred in 1964. What is a few more months to let the circuit court resolve the dispute and let the U.S. Supreme Court review a certiorari petition from the unhappy party? If the defendant dies in the meantime, the issue would be moot and could wait for another odd ball case to come up.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jul 31, 2009 3:06:40 PM

The counterargument seems to me to be that it's distinctly possible the question won't need to be decided, if the panel reverses the conviction on some other ground. If so, why drag the Court into it?

Posted by: Roger Ford | Jul 31, 2009 11:50:45 AM

One response, I suspect, might be that Seale could just petition for certiorari from the Fifth Circuit's order affirming the district court by an equally divided en banc court. That would also get the issue to the Court, albeit without the imprimatur (and backing) of the Fifth Circuit, the active judges of which appear to have voted 12-6 in favor of certification...

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Jul 30, 2009 11:59:10 PM

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