New Way to Resolve Actual Innocence Claims in Capital Cases?:

Today the Supreme Court took a step I don’t think I have ever seen before: When faced with an actual innocence claim in a capital case that was filed as a result or an original habeas corpus case, the court transferred the case to the relevant district court and ordered the trial court to figure out the merits:

The petition for a writ of habeas corpus is transferred to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia for hearing and determination. The District Court should receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes petitioner’s innocence. JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR took no part in the constion or decision of these motions and this petition.

Justice Scalia and Thomas dissented. The dissent begins:  

Today this Court takes the extraordinary step—one not taken in nearly 50 years—of instructing a district court to adjudicate a state prisoner’s petition for an original writ of habeas corpus. The Court proceeds down this path even though every judicial and executive body that has examined petitioner’s stale claim of innocence has been unpersuaded, and (to make matters worst) even though it would be impossible for the District Court to grant any relief. Far from demonstrating, as this Court’s Rule 20.4(a) requires, “exceptional circumstances” that “warrant the exercise of the Court’s discretionary powers,” petitioner’s claim is a sure loser. Transferring his petition to the District Court is a confusing exercise that can serve no purpose except to delay the State’s execution of its lawful criminal judgment. I respectfully dissent.

Justice Stevens, joined by Breyer and Ginsburg, respond to Scalia and Thomas in a concurring opinion:

The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing. Simply put, the case is sufficiently “exceptional” to warrant utilization of this Court’s Rule 20.4(a), 28 U. S. C. §2241(b), and our original habeas jurisdiction. See Byrnes v. Walker, 371 U. S. 937 (1962); Chaapel v. Cochran, 369 U. S. 869 (1962).

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger offers some perspective. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here is a taste:

And now, for something completely different…

The U.S. Supreme Court and its individual Justices have the jurisdiction to issue “original” writs of habeas corpus — “original” in the sense that the petitioner applies directly to the Supreme Court for relief, as opposed to applying to a lower court and then appealing the denial.

It was settled early, in a case related to the Aaron Burr plot, that the Supreme Court can issue such writs despite the Marbury limitation if the writ is appellate in practice even though original in form. That is, if the petitioner seeks a de facto review of a decision of a court, as opposed to the unilateral decision of the executive to lock him up, then he doesn’t have to fit within the very limited category of cases where the Constitution gives the Court original jurisdiction.

The Court used this jurisdiction in the nineteenth century to review cases it had no other way to review, but the power pretty much gathered dust in the twentieth century and, until today, in the twenty-first. Term after term, every Monday orders list has had one-liner denials of original habeas petitions.

Only once in the time I have been doing Supreme Court work (since 1987) has the Court seriously considered an original habeas petition and written an opinion. That was in Felker v. Turpin, 518 U.S. 651 (1996), the first case on the constitutionality of the then-brand-new Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The Court did not resolve whether original writs in the Supreme Court would be subject to the same restrictions Congress placed on the usual district-court application, but it said it would be guided by them nonetheless. It denied Felker’s petition, and he was executed shortly thereafter.

Another issue the Court has never resolved is whether a free-standing claim of actual innocence, unconnected to any constitutional violation at the trial, states a claim for relief in federal habeas corpus. The Court considered the question in Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993), but once it took a good, hard look at the facts, it realized that Herrera’s innocence claim was such complete garbage that it would have been denied under any conceivable standard.

And now comes Troy Davis.

  It’s interesting to note that eight Justices were on this, and two voiced a dissent. I wonder if the three liberal Justices who were on the case persuaded Kennedy to join them, setting up an awkward 4-4 showdown. If the court had split evenly, that would have set up an interesting question: What happens when a petitioner files an original case in the Supreme Court and the Court divides evenly? It’s not like there is a lower court to affirm. Roberts and Alito went along, though, making this a 6-2 vote in favor of the transfer.