Friday, May 26, 2006

Benitez v. Garcia (9th Cir. - May 23, 2006)

How tough is it to get this one right?!

The United States wants to extradite Cristobal Benitez from Venezuela. But Venezuela -- like several other nations -- won't extradite anyone who might possibly face either a death sentence or life in prison. And the Treaty that the U.S. and Venezuela entered into in 1922 says that Venezuela can condition extradition on receiving an assurance that the death penalty and/or life imprisonment won't be imposed. Which Venezuela expressly does here, and when the Venezuela Supreme Court approves the extradition of Benitez, it says that it does so only on the condition that California (who wants to prosecute him) "shall not . . . impose[] a penalty involving [the] death penalty or life imprisonment or punishment depriving his freedom for more than thirty years.” Pretty clear, right? (To make it even clearer, after getting the decision from the Venezuela Supreme Court, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Venezuela then extradited Benitez “conditioned to the understanding that [Benitez] will not be sentenced to . . . life in prison or incarceration for more than thirty (30) years.”)

Well, needless to say, California promptly convicts Benitez and sentences him to 15 years to life. At which point Benitez says: "Hey! You said you wouldn't sentence me to life! That was a condition of the extradition." To which the California Attorney General responds: "Ha ha ha! Fooled you!"

Okay, just kidding. Actually, the California Attorney General responds: "Sorry, my man. California law requires a sentence of 15 to life for murder. Treaty or no. So that's what you'll get." (Plus, as you might imagine, asserts a number of other defenses as well.)

At which point Benitez files a pretty darn straightforward state habeas petition, which basically just says: "You promised that you wouldn't sentence me to anything more than 30 years, or impose a life sentence, but you did so anyways. That's a violation of the 1922 Treaty with Venezuela, as well as the express conditions of my extradition. Sentence me to what you promised." A sufficiently clear, concise, and cogent argument that doesn't require much thought. And yet that the California courts routinely and uniformly reject, holding that because 15 to life is the requisite sentence for murder under California law, that's what Benitez properly received.

Finally, the federal courts get involved, on habeas. Initially, Judge Sabraw, who's down here in the Southern District of California, is of no help to Benitez, because even though Judge Sabraw thinks that the petition might have some merit, he concludes that the petition is not ripe, since Benitez hasn't actually served 30 years yet. Who knows? Maybe he'll die or be released from prison within the permissible time? Who knows? So, Judge Sabraw concludes, the petition isn't ripe.

This is a colorable -- if perhaps a bit heartless -- argument. Though one that doesn't long detain Judge D.W. Nelson, who writes this opinion reversing Judge Sabraw and granting the habeas petition. The conditions of extradition expressly preclude the U.S. from "imposing" a sentence of life or more than 30 years. And that's precisely what California did. Hence, the issue is ripe. And, on the merits, Benitez is entitled to relief. So that is what Judge Nelson orders the district court to do.

I agree with Judge Nelson. The issue is ripe, not only as a textual matter, but also consistent with precedent. Among other things, there a clear interest in a prisoner knowing what his sentence is. It's not premature for Benitez to obtain assurance that once he's served 30 years in prison, he's free -- that California can't keep him in prison for longer than that (assuming he doesn't commit any more crimes). Hence the matter is ripe. And, contrary to what the California courts (shamefully) held, on the merits, Benitez is unquestionably entitled to relief. Yes, California law provides for 15 years to life for murder. But, in this case, that conflicts with the Treaty between Venezuela and the United States. And if one takes even a brief look at the Constitution, you'll notice that treaties -- alongside federal law -- are the "Supreme Law of the Land".

When, as here, a Treaty conflicts with California law, guess which one wins? I'll give you a hint: It's not the law of California. That it took this long for a judicial tribunal to so hold should be embarrassing to the California courts, and doesn't reflect favorably upon the (already not-very-goodlooking) state habeas jurisprudence of these tribunals.

One final point. The attorney who successfully represented Benitez before the Ninth Circuit was Barbara Kay Strickland, an attorney who practices down here in San Diego. Someone who had previously been disbarred and, subsequently, readmitted. Something to keep in mind alongside the contemporary debate surrounding the proposed permanent disbarment of lawyers.

POSTSCRIPT - I got a very nice telephone call from one of the participants in this case (I'll keep his identity confidential, just in case) who thought that the matter was a lot more complicated that my post -- or the Ninth Circuit's opinion -- made it appear. His take was (1) that the state courts did address the merits, and that the "California law trumps" argument was merely an alternative holding, and (2) that the real issue is that the U.S. didn't agree to the conditions "imposed" by Venezuela (though he would say that Venezuela didn't impose any, and merely handed Benitez over subject to the U.S. conditions), and hence that the statements by Venezuela cited by the Ninth Circuit aren't dispositive (and may, indeed, be utterly irrelevant). After an informative and very enlightening conversation with him, I'm still not sure that the Ninth Circuit doesn't get it right, but think that there are indeed deeper issues that probably deserve to be addressed. Though, in my mind, I'm disposed to think that if Venezuela says -- as I still think they pretty clearly did -- that the conditions of extradition are X, if you go ahead and receive the prisoner, those are the conditions. In other words, that it's the expressed conditions of the extraditing country that are probably dispostive, rather than the "conditions" (though he would say "assurances") imposed by the country requesting extradition. Otherwise, among other things, we get into precisely the sort of contractual "who thought what" analysis that exists here and that we don't want.