Thursday, September 14, 2006

Comer v. Schriro (9th Cir. - Sept. 13, 2006)

This is a fascinating opinion. But it's also one that probably won't be around that long. So read it while you can -- or, at least, while it's still good law. Which may not give you that much time.

It's a death penalty case. It also involves a "volunteer"; in other words, an inmate who wants to die.

Normally, those appeals get dismissed and the sentence carried out. But the court here not only decides to adjudicate the merits, but also grants relief, and reverses the imposition of the death sentence on the merits.

Perhaps most interesting is why the court reverses the death sentence, as it does so on the ground that the circumstances of its imposition "shock the conscience" -- something that you definitely don't see every day. But, then again, neither do the facts, of which I'll give you only a brief taste: "We hold that Comer’s sentence was invalid and hereby grant the writ of habeas corpus based on the violation of Comer’s due process rights that occurred when he was sentenced to death while nearly naked, bleeding, shackled, and exhausted."

Sounds like something worth reading, huh? Here's another taste: "Comer was presented to the sentencing court not only in shackles, but nearly naked, with only a blanket covering his genitals, and slumped to one side in a wheelchair with blood oozing from his head wounds." Oooh!

The case is definitely unusual, which is, I think, in large part why the court reaches this (fairly unusual) result. You don't see these kinds of facts in a lot of cases.

Oh, yeah, maybe -- just maybe -- the composition of the panel might have had something to do with it as well. The panel consists of Judges Ferguson, Pregerson, and Rymer. If you can't figure out which one of these three dissents -- pretty darn strongly -- I'm sending you back to Ninth Circuit school. Immediately.

Anyway, as I said, for better or worse, I don't think this case has staying power. The majority may perhaps be right that, doctrinally, this case may be different than the previous volunteer cases. And, sure, on the merits, some of the facts of the case are both unique and bad. But, on the other hand, as for procedural bars, he's still a volunteer. And, on the merits, he was sentenced by a judge, not a jury, and we generally aren't as worried about prejudical effects on the former.

So, in the end, I think that either the Ninth Circuit will take this one up en banc or the Supreme Court will grant certiorari and reverse, either procedurally or on the merits (or, very potentially, both). Is the case worthy of certiorari? Probably not, particularly given its very unique factual and procedural setting. But, notwithstanding that fact, the opinion is a classic example of the "crazy" Ninth Circuit liberals running amok. And the Supremes don't like that. Trust me. They don't.

Still, a fascinating opinion while it lives.