June 08, 2009

Supreme Court Decides United States v. Denedo

On June 8, the Supreme Court decided United States v. Denedo, No. 08-267.

Denedo, a citizen of Nigeria serving in the U.S. Navy, pleaded guilty at a court martial pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement. The plea was accepted, and he was sentenced to three months' confinement and a bad conduct discharge from the Navy. Some years later, the Department of Homeland Security brought proceedings to deport Denedo based on the conviction. He then filed a petition for a writ of coram nobis with the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals (NMCCA), which had reviewed and affirmed his court martial conviction, seeking to set the conviction aside on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel and arguing that he had pled guilty only upon his attorney's assurance that his conviction would not create a risk of deportation. The NMCCA denied the petition without comment, but the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) reversed. It rejected the government's argument that the NMCCA had no authority to conduct post-conviction proceedings such as a coram nobis petition seeks, and remanded to allow the NMCCA to consider whether grounds for relief existed in this case.

The Supreme Court affirmed the CAAF's judgment. After first affirming its jurisdiction to review that judgment, which Denedo had challenged, the Court acknowledged that military courts have authority under the All Writs Act to entertain a coram nobis petition only if they have jurisdiction over the case or controversy in which the petition is filed—a principle that applies with special force here, where the courts in question exist pursuant to Article I of the Constitution rather than Article III. It found that such jurisdiction exists because a coram nobis petition is simply "a further step" in the original appeal of the conviction, which the NMCCA (and, by extension, the CAAF) plainly has statutory jurisdiction to hear and decide.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer joined. Chief Justice Roberts filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito joined.

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