Justices' Ruling Favors Prisoners
Apr. 26, 2000
WASHINGTON (AP) _ State prison inmates whose federal court appeals are dismissed so they can pursue claims in state courts do not necessarily abuse the judicial process by later seeking federal court help again, the Supreme Court ruled today.
The 7-2 decision, although dealing with arcane technicalities of what lawyers call ``habeas corpus'' proceedings, is significant _ one that potentially could help hundreds of thousands of state prisoners nationwide.
The ruling in a Nevada case generally will make it easier for some prison inmates to get a federal court to determine whether their state court prosecutions violated some federally protected right.
It was the court's fourth habeas-corpus ruling in eight days. Together, the four yield something of a mixed bag, alternately expanding and contracting federal court access for state prisoners in differing circumstances.
Today's decision revived convicted Nevada killer Antonio Slack's attempt to have a federal judge study the arguments he raised in a 1995 appeal. Lower courts had concluded that Slack's appeal was an abuse of his right to appeal, and they refused to consider the arguments it raised.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court today that the lower courts were wrong, and sent Slack's case back to those courts to determine whether he is entitled to a federal court hearing on the merits of his appeal.
Slack was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1990 for killing Alanna Holmes,12. He admitted killing the girl but said it had been an accident.
The Nevada Supreme Court upheld his conviction in 1991, but he then sought help from a federal judge.
For centuries, people convicted in state courts have had such a right. But a series of Supreme Court decisions limited federal court access for state prisoners, and a 1996 federal law further restricted federal judges' second-guessing of state court conclusions.
Before state prosecutors could respond to Slack's 1991 appeal, he asked that the federal proceeding be postponed until he could pursue additional claims in state appellate courts. The federal judge dismissed Slack's case without prejudice in 1992, leaving him the chance to refile it after exhausting all state remedies.
Slack lost those state court appeals, and in 1995 returned to federal court. But a federal judge in 1998 threw out the appeal, ruling that it was illegal because it raised issues not contained in the 1991 appeal.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the judge, but today's decision overturned the appeals court's ruling.
Kennedy said that even though the restrictive 1996 federal law _ the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act _ applies to Slack's case, his newest federal appeal is not illegal.
Past Supreme Court decisions, Kennedy said, do not ``limit a prisoner to claims made in a pleading that is often uncounseled, handwritten and pending in a federal court only until the state identifies one unexhausted claim.''
Referring to Slack's federal court odyssey, Kennedy said, ``The 1995 petition should not have been dismissed on the grounds that it was second or successive.''
He added that Nevada ``remains free to impose proper procedural bars to restrict repeated returns to state court for post-conviction proceedings,'' and that federal judges have authority ``to prevent vexatious litigation.''
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. They said Slack should not be allowed to raise claims not included in his 1991 federal appeal.
The case is Slack vs. McDaniel, 98-6322.
On the Net: For today's decision: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/ Click on ``this month's decisions'' or http://www.supremecourtus.gov