Sunday, December 05, 2004

More Texas "Judicial Activism"

Another day, another intransigent Texas court.

Here's another Times article detailing the past and present tension between the U.S. Supreme Court, which wants to assure a modicum of procedural fairness in death penalty cases, and the Fifth Circuit and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (those fountains of justice), which want to assure as many executions as possible, legal or not.

In the past year, the Supreme Court has heard three appeals from inmates on death row in Texas, and in each case the prosecutors and the lower courts suffered stinging reversals. In a case to be argued on Monday, the court appears poised to deliver another rebuke.

Below is more on the case to be argued Monday. Consider how the Fifth Circuit treats the precedent of a Supreme Court which has no Justice opposed to the death penalty.

In the Miller-El case, appellate lawyers and legal scholars are buzzing over what they say is the insolence of the Fifth Circuit.

In an 8-to-1 decision last year, the Supreme Court instructed the appeals court to rethink its "dismissive and strained interpretation" of the proof in the case, and to consider more seriously the substantial evidence suggesting that prosecutors had systematically excluded blacks from Mr. Miller-El's jury. Prosecutors used peremptory strikes to eliminate 10 out of 11 eligible black jurors, and they twice used a local procedure called a jury shuffle to move blacks lower on the list of potential jurors, the decision said. The jury ultimately selected, which had one black member, convicted Mr. Miller-El, a black man who is now 53, of killing a clerk at a Holiday Inn in Dallas in 1985.

Instead of considering much of the evidence recited by the Supreme Court majority, the appeals court engaged in something akin to plagiarism. In February, it again rejected Mr. Miller-El's claims, in a decision that reproduced, virtually verbatim and without attribution, several paragraphs from the sole dissenting opinion in last year's Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas.

"The Fifth Circuit just went out of its way to defy the Supreme Court on this," said John J. Gibbons, a former chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia, who joined a brief supporting Mr. Miller-El. "The idea that the system can tolerate open defiance by an inferior court just cannot stand."

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