Scalia’s absence looms over death penalty appeals case

Politics, Crime, Murder, News

Thanks to the sensational Making a Murderer documentary series that Netflix recently released, Americans are now injecting a bit of social consciousness into their binge-watching schedule. The ten-part documentary—while criticized by some as one-sided—details a questionable chain of events leading up to the lifetime sentence of Wisconsin’s Steven Avery and his then 16-year-old cousin for the rape and murder of a 25-year-old photographer.

The need for post-conviction appeals

Opinions and theories about the case that Making a Murderer highlights vary widely—ranging from total faith in the prosecutorial team to a somewhat-believable conspiracy theory about a Midwest serial killer. One thing that is not as controversial, however, is the undeniable fact that options for thorough post-conviction appeals must be available for any defendant facing significant prison time – or worse, the death penalty. Defendants facing incarceration as part of their sentence are wrongfully convicted an estimated 0.5 to 1.0 percent of the time – and the death penalty leaves no margin for error.

This is why a new Supreme Court case set for review later this year is so important. The case involves the extent to which federal funding should be channeled to state court appeals—if at all—for the death penalty. More specifically, Pennsylvania vs. Federal Community Defender Organization of Pennsylvania takes aim at whether Congress has expressly allowed for federal funding in post-conviction state court proceedings, despite a seemingly contrary position in a case known as Harbison v. Bell.

Last resort for death-row convicts

As a bit of background, the Federal Community Defender Organization (FCDO) receives funding from a grant from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. As part of their main duties, FCDO routinely defends capital offenders (that is, those awaiting execution for capital crimes) in federal habeas corpus proceedings. Moreover, FCDO is designated by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to represent indigent capital offenders in various state-level appeals—a notion to which the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has taken great exception.

At the heart of its argument, Pennsylvania asserts that the FCDO is stepping outside the bounds of its grant by accepting federal funds to represent clients through the state criminal appeals process. In support of this, the commonwealth sought to disqualify FCDO in seven separate state court proceedings, through which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court lambasted the FCDO and its practices.

Specifically, the court held that it is “not appropriate….for the federal courts to finance abusive litigation in state courts that places such a burden on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” and went so far as to refer to FCDO’s use of federal funds as “perverse.” Ouch.

The case, if decided in favor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, could not only severely limit offenders’ access to justice, but could cause an unwelcome strain on the commonwealth’s public defenders and their staff.

How Scalia’s death could impact the outcome

Justice Antonin Scalia was known as the conservative cornerstone of the Supreme Court, and with his unexpected death, the outcome of this case—and dozens of others—remains in limbo until his seat is filled. Currently, the political climate is a scalding hotbed of rhetoric over whether President Obama should fill the seat before vacating the Oval Office, or if the job is best left to the incoming president. Hence, the Court may split 4-4, pushing the matter back to the Circuit courts.

Should a left-leaning replacement take Scalia’s seat at the bench, things might be looking up for the FCDO. As an overall issue, liberal justices tend to denounce the death penalty altogether, putting the respondents—who regularly defend death-row inmates—in somewhat of a favorable light by virtue of their vocation. Moreover, a liberal justice may also be more inclined to ensure adequate funding is available for representation of indigent criminal defendants, regardless of the severity of their offenses.

By contrast, a more conservative jurist may rely on the oft-invoked notion that if the language of a statute (or grant) is unclear, it should be interpreted based on its plain, obvious meaning—as opposed to “reading into” the document, an activity particularly loathed by the late Scalia. In addition, they may be persuaded by the notion that every Circuit Court in the United States has decided this issue in the past, and all but the Third Circuit have adhered to the notion that there is no right to federal funding for habeas corpus review.

With something as unpredictable as the Supreme Court, it is usually best to simply expect the unexpected.