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Habeas Corpus: The Due Process Clause – State Procedural Rules and Habeas Corpus Petitions


SWARTHOUT v. COOKE
Decided January 24, 2011 United States Supreme Court

Issue : Whether relief under the Habeas Corpus states 28 USC §2254 is appropriate where the defendant claims that the Due Process Clause requires the correct application of a state procedural rule.

Holding : No, Habeas relief is not appropriate and the Due Process Clause does not guarantee the correct application of state procedural rules only that they are constitutionally sufficient.

Facts :

Cooke was convicted of attempted first-degree murder in 1991, and a California court sentenced him to an indeterminate term of seven years to life in prison with the possibility of parole. In November 2002, the board determined that Cooke was not yet suitable for parole, basing its decision on the “especially cruel and callous manner” of his commitment offense. Cooke filed a federal habeas petition pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §2254 challenging the parole board’s determination. The District Court denied his petition. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that California’s parole statute created a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause, and that “California’s ‘some evidence’ requirement” was a “component” of that federally protected liberty interest. Cooke v. Solis, 606 F. 3d 1206, 1213 (2010). It then concluded that the state court had made an “unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence” under §2254(d)(2) by finding any evidence at all that Cooke would pose a threat to public safety if released.

Respondent Elijah Clay was convicted of first-degree murder in 1978, and a California court sentenced him to imprisonment for seven years to life with the possibility of parole. In 2003, the board found Clay suitable for parole, but the Governor exercised his authority to review the case and found Clay unsuitable for parole. Clay subsequently filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which the District Court granted.

The District Court concluded that the Governor’s reliance on the nature of Clay’s long-past commitment offense violated Clay’s right to due process, and dismissed each of the other factors the Governor cited as unsupported by the record. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, agreeing with the District Court’s conclusion that “the Governor’s decision was an unreasonable application of California’s ‘some evidence’ rule and was an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented.

Legal Discussion and Analysis :

In granting habeas relief based on its conclusion that the state courts had misapplied California’s “some evidence” rule, the Ninth Circuit must have assumed either that federal habeas relief is available for an error of state law, or that correct application of the State’s “some evidence” standard is required by the federal Due Process Clause. Neither assumption is correct.

As to the first: The habeas statute “unambiguously provides 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.

As for the Due Process Clause, standard analysis under that provision proceeds in two steps: We first ask whether there exists a liberty or property interest of which a person has been deprived, and if so we ask whether the procedures followed by the State were constitutionally sufficient.

Whatever liberty interest exists is, of course, a state interest created by California law. There is no right under the Federal Constitution to be conditionally released before the expiration of a valid sentence, and the States are under no duty to offer parole to their prisoners. When, however, a State creates a liberty interest, the Due Process Clause requires fair procedures for its vindication-and federal courts will review the application of those constitutionally required procedures. In the context of parole, we have held that the procedures required are minimal. In Greenholtz v. Inmates of Neb. Penal and Correctional Complex, 442 U. S. 1, 12 (1979), we found that a prisoner subject to a parole statute similar to California’s received adequate process when he was allowed an opportunity to be heard and was provided a statement of the reasons why parole was denied.

The Constitution, we held, “does not require more. Cooke and Clay received at least this amount of process: They were allowed to speak at their parole hearings and to contest the

evidence against them, were afforded access to their records in advance, and were notified as to the reasons why parole was denied. No opinion of ours supports converting

California’s “some evidence” rule into a substantive federal requirement. The liberty interest at issue here is the interest in receiving parole when the California standards

for parole have been met, and the minimum procedures adequate for due-process protection of that interest are those set forth in Greenholtz.

It will not do to pronounce California’s “some evidence” rule to be “a component” of the liberty interest, 606 F. 3d, at 1213. Such reasoning would subject to federal-court

merits review the application of all state-prescribed procedures in cases involving liberty or property interests, including (of course) those in criminal prosecutions. That has never been the law. To the contrary, we have long recognized that “a ‘mere error of state law’ is not a denial of due process.” Engle v. Isaac, 456 U. S. 107, 121, n. 21 (1982). The Ninth Circuit’s questionable finding that there was no evidence in the record supporting the parole denials is irrelevant unless there is a federal right at stake, as §2254(a) requires. See id., at 67. The short of the matter is that the responsibility for assuring that the constitutionally adequate procedures governing California’s parole system are properly applied rests with California courts, and is no part of the Ninth Circuit’s business.

The petition for a writ of certiorari and respondents’ motions for leave to proceed in forma pauperis are granted.

The judgments below are Reversed