June 24, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Magwood v. Patterson

On June 24, 2010, the Supreme Court decided Magwood v. Patterson, No. 09-158, holding that a prisoner's habeas petition on a new criminal sentence was not unreviewable as a "second or successive" challenge even though some of the arguments he raised in the petition could have been raised in a challenge to the first sentence.

Billy Joe Magwood was sentenced to death in Alabama state court. After his direct appeal and state postconviction proceedings, he filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court, challenging the conviction and sentence on the ground that the trial court failed to consider statutory mitigating circumstances based on his mental state. The writ was granted as to his sentence. The state trial court conducted a new sentencing hearing and again sentenced Magwood to death. Following the conclusion of state proceedings, Magwood filed another application for a writ of habeas corpus to challenge his sentence, arguing, among other things, that at the time of his offense he did not have fair warning that it was punishable by death. The district court agreed with Magwood. It also determined that it could review Magwood's application despite the statutory provision in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), which provides that "second or successive" challenges are unreviewable. The Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that Magwood's challenge to his sentence was unreviewable as a "second or successive" challenge.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that, because Magwood's application challenged a new judgment for the first time, it was not "second or successive" within the meaning of the AEDPA. Based on its interpretation of the statute's text, the Court held that the phrase "second or successive" as used in the statute refers to the judgment being challenged, not the allegedly unlawful "custody" of the prisoner. Thus, the new sentence imposed by the state court may be challenged through a habeas petition, even though the grounds for the application arguably could have been brought against the first judgment. The Court rejected the argument that AEDPA's purpose of preventing "piecemeal litigation and gamesmanship" by providing "one opportunity" for challenges by prisoners warranted the opposite result. It reasoned that its decision was consistent with prior precedent and declined to consider whether a petitioner who obtains a writ as to a criminal sentence may raise a subsequent application as to the original conviction.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court except as to section IV-B of the opinion, in which Justice Scalia joined in full and Justices Stevens, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined except as to section IV-B. Justice Breyer filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Justices Stevens and Sotomayor joined. Justice Kennedy filed a dissenting opinion in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg and Alito joined.

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