January 24, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Swarthout v. Cooke and Cate v. Clay

On January 24, 2011, the Supreme Court summarily reversed the Ninth Circuit in the consolidated cases of Swarthout v. Cooke and Cate v. Clay, No. 10-333, holding that, whatever state-created liberty interest prisoners may have in parole, due process requirements are satisfied when a prisoner has an opportunity to be heard and is provided a statement of the reasons why parole is denied.

Swarthout v. Cooke arose out of the 1991 conviction of Damon Cooke for attempted first-degree murder. In 2002, the California Board of Prison Terms determined that Cooke was not yet suitable for parole. California law provides that if the Board denies parole, the prisoner can seek judicial review in a state habeas petition, which Cooke did. The California Superior Court denied Cooke's petition, finding "some evidence" that supported the Board's denial. The California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court both denied Cooke's subsequent habeas petitions, prompting him to file a federal habeas petition. The district court denied the petition, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the "some evidence" standard was a component of a federally protected liberty interest and that the state court had made an "unreasonable determination" under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2) that Cooke posed a threat to public safety if released.

Cate v. Clay, meanwhile, arose out of the 1978 conviction of Elijah Clay for first-degree murder. In 2003 the Board found Clay suitable for parole, but the governor reviewed the case and found Clay unsuitable for parole. The California Superior Court denied Clay's petition for habeas relief, as did the California Court of Appeal. The California Supreme Court denied reviewed. Clay then filed for federal relief, which the district court granted. It concluded that the governor's reliance on the nature of Clay's long-past commitment offense violated his right to due process. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the governor's decision was an unreasonable application of the "some evidence" rule.

The Supreme Court summarily reversed both decisions, holding that federal habeas relief is not available for an error of state law and that the Due Process Clause does not require correct application of the "some evidence" standard. With regard to the first point, the Court noted that a federal court may issue a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States. With regard to the Due Process issue, the Court accepted the Ninth Circuit's finding that California law creates a liberty interest in parole, and it recognized that when a state creates a liberty interest, the Due Process Clause requires fair procedures for its vindication. However, it held that both Cooke and Clay received adequate process because they were allowed an opportunity to be heard and were provided a statement of the reasons why parole was denied. According to the Court, the Ninth Circuit erred in going a step further and evaluating the state courts' decision on the merits.

The opinion of the Court was per curiam. Justice Ginsburg filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

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