The basic dynamic of Ninth Circuit “liberal lion” Stephen Reinhardt overturning a death sentence in a habeas case — and then the U.S. Supreme Court reversing Reinhardt — happens so often that it normally would not merit comment. But here’s a slight twist: Today the Supreme Court reversed Reinhardt for the third time in the same case, that of Fernando Belmontes, Jr.
As I understand the history, Judge Reinhardt first authored an opinion overturning Belmontes’ death sentence in Belmontes v. Woodford, 350 F.3d 861 (9th Cir. 2003). The Supreme Court granted, vacated, and remanded in light of Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. 133 (2005). To be fair, that one wasn’t really a direct reversal of Reinhardt: He wasn’t on the Ninth Circuit decision reversed in Brown, so the first reversal was only to account for the Supreme Court’s clarification of the law in Brown. On remand, Judge Reinhardt wrote a second opinion overturning Belmontes’ death sentence in Belmontes v. Brown, 414 F.3d 1094 (9th Cir. 2005). The Supreme Court took that case and reversed in Ayers v. Belmontes, 549 U.S. 7 (2006). Judge Reinhardt then wrote a third opinion overturning Belmontes’ death sentence in Belmontes v. Ayers, 529 .23d 834 (9th Cir. 2008), which the Supreme Court reversed 9-0 in a per curiam decision today in Wong v. Belmontes.