Monday, May 14, 2012

In Re Bratton (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 24, 2012)

This is exactly what people mean when they talk about procedure getting in the way of substance.

Henry Bratton committed a murder when he was 18.  That was in 1974.  He's now 56 years old, having been in prison for nearly four decades.  He obtained parole in 2008, but the Governor reversed the grant.  The judiciary ultimately reversed the Governor's decision as based on insufficient evidence, so Bratton was released.  But not before spending an extra two years in prison based on the Governor's erroneous decision.

So Bratton says that because he served an extra two years in prison, those two years should count against his three-year parole term.  Leaving him only one year left.  After all, he was pretty supervised for those first two years, since he was in prison.

Now, I gotta tell you, I'm not all that inclined towards this argument.  Sure, he's got a claim, and I don't like that he had to spend the extra couple of years in prison just because the Governor feared that any murderer might result in the next Willie Horton advertisement.  At the same time, I have a bad feeling about a dude who committed murder and who's itching to get off parole ASAP.  Have something in mind?  Especially for individuals, like Mr. Bratton, originally sentenced to death.  Makes me nervous.  And more generally, I think there's a reason for a three-year parole term outside of prison.  Because we want to make sure you're okay for a while even when you're largely on your own.

But my facial lack of sympathy with the merits doesn't extend to attempts to ensure that the merits of this position never get resolved.  Which is exactly what happens here.  Bratton files a petition once he's out saying that he's should get credit for his two years, resulting in a one year term rather than three.  That's done promptly, which you'd think was admirable.  But the Court of Appeal holds, nope, that means the action has to be dismissed, because he filed too early.  He admitted that he was validly on parole for a year, and he was still on it when he first filed.  So not actionable.  Even though you know the action was going to take more than a year -- as indeed it did -- and that by the time it actually got resolved, that first year would have expired.  As, indeed, it had.  Sorry.  Filed too early.  Mind you, had you actually filed at the right time, at the end of the first year, your action would probably be moot by the time the Court of Appeal got around to it, since the three years would then have expired, so we'd dismiss it on that alternate ground as well.  Can you say "Catch-22"?  I thought you could.

But not willing to rely entirely on that, the Court of Appeal also says that Bratton failed to exhaust his administrative remedies in any event.  Never mind that we know to a legal certainty what the Parole Board would have said about Bratton's claim that he was entitled to credit for two years.  They'd have said no.  Just like the Attorney General says on appeal.  Tough.  We demand that you do it.  Because you can't "prove" that they'd say no.  Never mind that we all know it.  What, you say?  But that'd simply add even more time to the process, and make even more certain that the three years would have expired by the time the case got resolved in the Court of Appeal?  Tough again.  That whole -22 thing.

It's not that I don't understand the reasons because the exhaustion and ripeness requirements.  I do.  Truly.  They're valuable in many settings.  But they also occasionally impede rather than advance justice.  In settings precisely like this one.

And I wish the Court of Appeal would at least recognize that fact more than they sometimes do.  Even -- and perhaps especially -- when it doesn't change the ultimate result.