Sixth Circuit Habeas Happenings:

There was lots of activity and acrimony relating to habeas corpus petitions on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit last week. On Thursday, the Court rejected a petition for rehearing en banc in Keith v. Mitchell over the dissent of four judges. The original three-judge panel split 2-1, with Chief Judge Boggs writing the majority for himself and Judge Gibbons and Judge Clay dissenting. Judge Clay dissented again from the denial of en banc review, joined by Judges Moore, Martin, and Cole. His dissent argued that Kevin Keith received constitutionally inadequate assistance of counsel during the mitigation phase of his trial.

Judge Martin wrote separately "to express again [his] dismay and frustration with the shortcomings of our approach to reviewing death sentences through habeas corpus appeals," and to suggest that legal representation in capital cases is potentially unconstitutional. Martin continued:

members of this Court have gone on record to second-guess the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, and this Court, that requires counsel to conduct an adequate investigation of potential mitigating circumstances for purposes of capital sentencing, and mandates the reversal of convictions where this does not occur. [Here Martin cites the opinions by Chief Judge Boggs and Judge Suhrheinrich in Poindexter v. Mitchell, which I covered here.] This reasoning strikes me as demonstrating callousness and possible animosity toward the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
Martin further intimated that this "animosity" likely influenced the outcome in this case.

On the same day, in Apanovitch v. Houk, the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court's denial of Anthony Apanovitch's habeas petition "[i]n light of the state's apparent failure to provide potentially exculpatory materials to Apanovitch prior to the filing of his petition" and the availability of evidence that had not undergone DNA testing. The panel's unanimous opinion was written by Chief Judge Boggs, joined by judges Daughtrey and Moore.

On Friday, a little bit of disagreement resurfaced on the Sixth, but not along the usual ideological lines. In Spisak v. Mitchell, the Sixth Circuit granted a death row inmate's habeas petition on the grounds that he received ineffective assistance of counsel during the mitigation phase and the judge gave improper jury instructions. If nothing else, "the decision is worth a read to see just how ineffective a capital attorney can be," observes Robert Loblaw on the Decision of the Day blog.

The majority opinion in Spisak, written by Judge Clay, rejected the inmate's other claims. Judge Moore wrote an opinion dissenting in part, as she would have granted the petition on additional grounds, specifically "the trial court's exclusion of expert testimony and evidence regarding Spisak's insanity defense and the trial court's refusal to submit the insanity defense to the jury."

Given that the panel of Judges Clay, Daughtrey and Moore was, in Loblaw's words, "every habeas petitioner's dream," and not representative of the current composition of the Sixth Circuit on habeas issues these days, it will be interesting to see whether the state seeks en banc review.

[Links via Decision of the Day.]