SAN FRANCISCO – When the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Scott Kiernan v. Antonio A. Hinojosa in May, the decision was one in a series. The court reversed the decision of the 9th Circuit Court of California, which had granted Hinojosa’s petition for habeas relief, and one California attorney says this reinforces a message long communicated to inmates.
“It’s never a surprise to see the Supreme Court reverse the 9th Circuit,” Shanti Brien, a criminal attorney and lecturer at UC Berkeley Law School told Northern California Record.
The unsigned decision from the U.S. Supreme Court notes that Hinojosa filed a petition for habeas corpus relief after legislators changed a law that had allowed inmates affiliated with prison gangs to continue to accrue good time while in a secured housing unit, and took away accrual of new good time that could have reduced an inmate’s sentence further.
Hinojosa first filed his petition in the Orange County Superior Court and his petition was denied because he filed in the wrong county. He should have filed in Kings County Superior Court, where he was incarcerated. Instead of filing in the appropriate court, the inmate filed an appeal of the Orange County Superior Court’s decision, which was also denied.
While Brien does not know the motivation behind Hinojosa’s decision to first file in Orange County instead of Kings County, she says that there could be a variety of reasons.
“Most inmates consult the law library or at least a ‘jailhouse lawyer,’ and both would be aware of the basic rule that you file a habeas petition in the jurisdiction in which you are incarcerated. However, perhaps the petitioner was misinformed or misunderstood and files in the court in which he was convicted,” Brien said.
Hinojosa next sought relief from the California Supreme Court next, asking for an original writ of habeas corpus. The state Supreme Court dismissed his petition without explanation, and he filed for federal habeas corpus relief from the 9th Circuit Court. This is the decision that the U.S. Supreme Court took issue with.
In denying Hinojosa’s petition for federal habeas corpus relief, the 9th Circuit said that the state superior court’s denial was not “on the merits” of the case and because of that, it was not bound by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). The act prohibits federal courts from granting habeas relief unless the state court decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts, or involved unreasonable application of federal law.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s May 16 decision reversed the 9th Circuit Court’s ruling after it granted Hinojosa’s petition for habeas relief, noting that improper venue was not a reason to summarily deny the inmate’s claim. But, this does not mean that the 9th Circuit Court has to take another look at the case.
“The Supreme Court opinion only orders the case 'reversed' and not 'remanded' so the simple answer is no, it will not be reconsidered by the 9th,” Brien said. “Even if it were remanded, however, it appears from the decision that the 9th Circuit recognized that it would be bound by precedent to deny the habeas petition if it had to apply the deferential AEDPA standard.”
In effect, the Supreme Court’s decision sends a message to inmates that habeas cases are a waste of time and the Supreme Court can find infinite ways to deny relief to people in prison,” Brien said. “This is not a new message. In fact, this was the purpose of AEDPA.”
Individuals often remain in prison on “technicalities” rather than getting out of prison, or out of a conviction because of a technicality, Brien says.
”The other aspect of the criminal justice system that this illuminates it the willingness of the courts to ignore injustices – like the obviously violation of the prohibition of ex post facto laws in this case – in the name of judicial efficiency and finality,” Brien said. “I believe that the writ of habeas corpus was the original 'conviction review unit' and that we should reconsider the enormous restrictions of AEDPA (and the enormous amount of litigation that THOSE [sic] procedural restrictions cause) to allow more petitioners to have the merits of their cases considered.”