Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Cert. Grant: Chappell v. Ayala: Harmless Error and Habeas Corpus

When the Ninth Circuit grants habeas relief over a dissent, as it did in Ayala v. Wong:
http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2014/02/25/09-99005%20web%20revised%202.pdf
it is likely that the Supreme Court will review the decision. And so it is in this case, now renamed Chappell v. Ayala.
Like many habeas cert. grants, the issue presented (at least the first issue) involves the reach of 28 U.S.C. 2254. It asks whether a lower court's harmless-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt finding is an "adjudication on the merits" under 2254(d). The Ninth Circuit said no, the theory being that the lower court did not reach the actual merits of the underlying constitutional claim. That might be true, but it is also true that, in reaching harmless-error review, the lower courts assumed a constitutional violation (in this case, a Batson violation where the district court held an ex parte hearing to ascertain the government's reasons for striking certain jurors).
This leads to the second issue, spotted by the Court itself, asking whether the Ninth Circuit properly applied harmless error review, as articulated in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993). Now, the analysis used to resolve this question could be extremely important (perhaps more so than the answer). Any discussion of harmless error review, as a concept, would apply beyond the narrow facts of this case (again, a Batson error). With that said, if the government claims harmless error in one of your cases, pay particular attention to this case. The decision could affect the outcome in your case.

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