Wednesday, April 23, 2014

People v. Prock (Cal. Ct. App. - April 23, 2014)

If I ever drafted an opinion like this one, I would hope that someone would talk me out of publishing it.

Matthew Prock gets convicted of second-degree murder (but acquitted of first-degree murder) for stabbing a person at a gas station.  The California Court of Appeal affirms in an unpublished opinion.  Prock then files a federal habeas opinion, which the federal court grants (on the basis of an erroneous instruction).  Happens.

Prock then gets retried.  Convicted again.  The California Court of Appeal again affirms.

Nothing unusual there.  The case worked its way through the system exactly as it should.

As it happens, even though the first California appeal was resolved in 2002, the exact same panel -- the same three California justices -- resolve the 2014 appeal.  I'm sure that Prock isn't particularly happy about that, since he lost his first appeal in front of these same judges.  But it is what it is.  Nothing untoward about it.  A panel sticking around for a dozen years is a good thing.

As for the 2014 opinion itself, as I read the first twenty pages, I'm not overawed by the legal analysis.  But it's nonetheless a fairly standard Court of Appeal opinion.  Going down each of the defendant's arguments and quickly rejecting them on multiple grounds.

But then it gets interesting.

At the end of the opinion, Justice Yegan says that he has "an obligation to respond" to the federal opinion that previously granted Prock's habeas opinion.  Which he proceeds to do.  In spades.  Taking the next several pages to slam the federal court's decision as not only erroneous, but also "implausible," an "affront to the judges of this state," and effectively the "work [of] a judicial repeal of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996."


Let's take this response in pieces.

As for the Court of Appeal's assertion that it has a "duty" to respond to the federal issuance of habeas, that's just silly.  There's no such "obligation".  Yeah, I get it.  You may well not like the federal decision.  This is a feeling not unfamiliar to me.  I don't like a wide variety of federal decisions as well.  But the fact that a judge is reversed -- on habeas or otherwise -- in no way, shape or form obligates a judge to respond.  Even if the federal decision is erroneous, absurd, insulting, written in crayon, or whatever.  It is what it is.  If it's wrong, there's a remedy for that.  A higher court.  They can decide whether it's right.  There's no need for the court that's reversed to give its take on whether its reversal was justified.  Much less is the lower court "obligated" to do so.

Moreover, if there was any such obligation to "protect the integrity" of the reversed court, then it arose in 2007, when the federal court issued its decision.  If the Court of Appeal was obligated to complain, it was obliged then.  Write an op-ed.  Take out an advertisement.  Insult the federal district court in the very next opinion you write.  Why does your "obligation" exist only if (1) there's a retrial, (2) at which the defendant is again convicted, (3) and there's an appeal, (4) that comes to you?  Surely that can't be right.  Surely a court isn't obligated to protect its integrity only when those four things happen to transpire.

Indeed, there are many reasons not to speak only in such a setting.  Not the least of which being the fact that taking advantage of such an opportunity may well make something think that you're affirmatively interested in making (4) happen.  If the only time you feel free to insult the court that's reversed you is if the case comes back to you on retrial, you've got an incentive to make that happen -- by making sure to retain jurisdiction or otherwise grab the case even if that doesn't involve any efficiencies.  Which isn't good for anyone.

What's worse, one might easily think that the fact that the panel may well be frustrated (even understandably) by being reversed could well color the panel's disposition of the present appeal.  After all, the panel's pissed.  So pissed that they're going to go out of their way to slam the federal court that reversed them.  Plus, there's the little matter of the fact that the panel thinks that this defendant should already be in prison.  That he was properly convicted of this exact same offense twelve years previously.  Indeed, that setting the guy free like the federal court did was an "affront to the judges of this state."  Couldn't someone perhaps reasonably think that a panel that headed into the disposition of an appeal with this attitude wasn't exactly itching to resolve the present appeal in the defendant's favor?  Especially since the panel couldn't nearly as effectively attack the federal court's opinion if the panel held (on the merits) that the guy wasn't properly convicted at the second trial either.

It'd be a natural human feeling to want to affirm this guy's conviction because you think that he was rightly convicted before and is only free as the result of an absurd and improper act of a federal court -- an act that you're chomping at the bit to insult.  What better way to do so than to affirm and then to end the opinion by saying (as Justice Yegan does) that this case is a "good example of why the criminal justice system is so often criticized for failing to achieve certainty and finality in its judgments" -- since you've now had to resolve two appeals (rather than simply one) against him in order to keep him in prison.  Only by resolving the current appeal against the defendant can you powerfully end your opinion -- again, as Justice Yegan does -- by saying:  "Appellant was fairly tried and convicted; both times."  That's certainly a lot stronger than ending your slam on the federal court by saying that "Appellant was fairly tried and convicted the first time, but the federal court wrongly reversed us, but this time, we agree that the result of his second trial was improper and hence that his conviction should be reversed."  Doesn't really have the same punch, does it?

Which is why I'd want someone to talk me out writing the opinion the way the Court of Appeal does here.

It's not that I don't empathize with what Justice Yegan and the rest of the panel feel.  I do.  Truly.  No one likes to be reversed.  Especially if (as is often the case) the reversal is thought by those reversed to be both erroneous and overly dismissive.  I get it.  Really.  It doesn't exactly bring a smile to my face either when those in a higher position disagree with what I say -- publicly or otherwise -- and do so tersely or (IMHO) without sufficient analysis or understanding.  No one likes it when others rudely disagree with the expression by an author of a sincerely-held view.

But it comes with the territory.  You've got to have a thick skin.  That's true for a law professor who's writing law review articles and/or a blawg with respect to which -- trust me on this one -- not everyone agrees with every single word.  It's equally, if not more, true for appellate justices.  It's crystal clear to me that you don't have a "duty" to respond to opinions you don't like and/or that reverse you.  It's also pretty clear to me that it's a good practical idea to refrain from doing so as well.  Particularly when, as here, the analytical validity of the reversal of the first trial has nothing whatsoever to do with the proper resolution of the current appeal.

It doesn't help.  It only hurts. Notwithstanding the fact that I have no doubt whatsoever that it will feel oh so good to vent your frustration at the district court that reversed you.

I'll add only one more thing.  As I've said, I get it that the panel's pissed.  It thinks -- as it says at length -- that its opinion was right and that the federal court was really, really, really wrong to grant habeas.  That the federal opinion was a manifest violation of AEDPA and totally absurd.

But that perhaps that feeling -- that frustration -- might be properly tempered by the realization that it wasn't just an absurdly incompetent federal district judge that granted habeas.  The habeas grant resulted from the report and recommendation of a federal magistrate judge.  S/he thought it was the right call.  A call that was confirmed by a federal district court judge as well.  A call that, apparently, the California Attorney General didn't even bother to appeal to the Ninth Circuit.  Presumably because s/he thought that three judges on that court would also agree with the disposition.

Admittedly, maybe the lesson that one could draw from this set of facts is that "they're all in on it".  That the magistrate judge was completely out of it.  That the district judge was similarly insane. That the Ninth Circuit is equally absurd.  That every single one of them is entirely worthy of the critique that the California Court of Appeal goes out of its way to level here.

But maybe -- just maybe -- the fact that all of these people seem to agree that it was the Court of Appeal's original unpublished opinion that was the relevant mistake says something.  Maybe -- just maybe -- it was that opinion that's the one that's not so great.  That maybe (again, just maybe) that that opinion was indeed justifiably reversed.  Even if the authors of that opinion, even upon reflection, (not surprisingly) disagree.

Or that, at a minimum, maybe the uniformity of the federal response might reflect that this is one of those situations in which reasonable minds, acting reasonably, could (and do) reasonably disagree.  Which would tend to negate the need-slash-obligation to respond to a federal opinion the validity of which everyone agrees has nothing to do with the contemporary appeal.

Sometimes people disagree.  Sometimes those disagreements are expressed inartfully, or with perceived insufficient deference.

And sometimes, even though you really, really want to respond, you've just got to let it go.