14 January 2015

Law in Plain English: Jennings v. Stephens

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogJennings v. Stephens

Argument: Oct 15 2014 (Aud.)

Robert Mitchell Jennings
Background: In 1989, Robert Jennings was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for the killing of a Houston police officer. His conviction and appeal were affirmed on direct appeal. His state habeas application was denied. In 2009, Jennings filed a federal habeas petition, alleging that his attorneys were ineffective by 1) failing to present evidence of his disadvantaged background; 2) failing to find and present evidence of his mental impairment; and 3) conceding defeat and stating that he (Jennings's lawyer) could not quarrel with the jury's decision to find Jennings eligible for the death penalty. The district court agreed on the first two claims and granted habeas relief. The Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice filed a timely notice of appeal. The district court decided against Jennings on the third claim regarding the closing argument. Jennings did not file a notice of appeal on the closing argument claim, nor did he seek a certificate of appealability (COA). The Fifth Circuit acknowledged a circuit split on the issue of whether a petitioner can raise arguments in opposition to the state's appeal for relief not adopted by the district court without first seeking a COA when the state appeals a grant of habeas relief (as was the case here). Nonetheless, the panel (while also reversing the district court's decision on the first two claims) ruled that Jennings's closing argument claim was procedurally barred because he failed file a notice of appeal or seek a COA. According to the Court of Appeals, 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c) requires that a petitioner must seek a COA, and a state's appeal on a different claim does not displace this section's gate-keeping function with regards to the claim that the district court decided adversely to the petitioner.

Issue: The question before the Court is whether the Fifth Circuit erred in holding that a federal habeas petitioner who prevailed in the district court on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim must file a separate notice of appeal and motion for a certificate of appealability to raise an allegation of deficient performance that the district court rejected even though the Fifth Circuit acquired jurisdiction over the entire claim as a result of the respondent’s appeal.

Holding: In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Jennings’ theory was a defense of his judgment on alternative grounds, and thus he was not required to take a cross-appeal or obtain a certificate of appealability to argue it on appeal.
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