[Posted April 18, 2013] I’ve been analyzing Supreme Court opinions for eight and a half years now, and to the best of my memory this is the smallest batch I’ve ever seen – just nine published opinions are handed down today. Lest I get any ideas about finishing this session’s analysis in one day, the justices have given me a few extra-long ones.

Criminal law
Back in my public-sector days, I occasionally prosecuted recidivist offenses – things like DUI-3rd or subsequent offense. In order to make out a prima facie case, I had to offer proof that the defendant had been convicted on previous occasions. The issue in Boone v. Commonwealth is whether the prosecution may “over-prove” priors in its case in chief.

The danger with adducing a lot of prior convictions in the prosecution is that it may taint the jury’s view of the defendant. It tends to interject the sense that this defendant has been guilty before, so he’s probably guilty now. For this reason, many criminal trials are bifurcated into guilt and sentencing phases – the priors are admitted in the sentencing phase only, so as not to taint the decision on whether this particular defendant committed this particular offense.

But recidivist offenses require the prosecution to do just that. Boone was charged with possession of a firearm after having been “previously convicted of a violent felony.” The use of the singular article a in that phrase would naturally lead you to believe that the prosecution need establish only one prior felony conviction. And you’d be right; that’s all the Commonwealth has to prove. But Boone had five prior convictions, and the prosecution sought to prove all five.

Boone thought that was a bit much, so he objected. The trial court overruled the objection, and when all those earlier convictions came in, the jury decided to get him. He “got” five years.

Today, the Supreme Court unanimously affirms the conviction, noting that the statute doesn’t create a rule of evidence; it merely established a threshold of proof. A prosecutor is permitted to use a belt-and-suspenders approach if she wants to, and in this instance, staples and duct tape, too. That’s because a skeptical jury might discount one particular prior conviction, or (as happened just last year in Conley v. Commonwealth) one of the priors might get overturned.

In essence, this boils down to a question of whether the trial judge abused his discretion in allowing evidence that could easily be called cumulative and prejudicial. But abuse of discretion is a lenient standard, and the justices agree today that admitting the evidence was within the permissible range of what the judge was allowed to do. Boone was probably hoping for a ruling that admitting five priors in the guilt phase was prejudicial as a matter of law, but in this appeal (as in so many others), the standard of review proves case-dispositive.

The next case, Commonwealth v. Tuma, presents sensitive substantive and procedural issues, plus something that I found to be a major appellate-procedure surprise. This is an appeal in a criminal prosecution for sexual offenses against a seven-year-old child, and the primary legal issue is a Brady violation.

After the child told her father and stepmother that her stepfather had sexually assaulted her, an investigator from the sheriff’s office and a DSS child-protective-services worker interviewed the child. The DSS worker tape-recorded the interview, to supplement the deputy’s notes. The deputy gave a summary of the notes to the prosecutor.

What followed is an unfortunate but instructive example of (1) how not to comply with Brady obligations and (2) how not to properly object when the prosecutor doesn’t hand over the goods. Here’s what happened:

A week before trial, the defense lawyer asked the deputy whether there was a tape of the interview. The deputy responded less than decisively, essentially saying, “I think there may have been, but I’m not sure.” Today’s majority describes this vacillating statement more strongly than I would, saying that because of this, the defense lawyer “learned of the tape’s probable existence.” (In my opinion, this did nothing more than confirm the possibility, not probability, that there was a tape. But I have no desire to quibble, so I’ll let this one go.)

I’ll interject at this point that if you’re a civil practitioner and you’re horrified by this failure to produce evidence, keep in mind that trial by ambush is largely permissible in the criminal arena, where there’s very little discovery provided for in the rules. Some prosecutors open their files to defense counsel, but not all of them do. With Brady materials, it’s usually sufficient if the prosecution hands over exculpatory or impeachment evidence to the defense during the trial. Think about that the next time you complain about a civil discovery matter; it could be worse.

The deputy testified early in the trial, and he stated under oath that he thought DSS had recorded the interview. The CPS worker testified next, and she confirmed it; in fact, she had the tape right there with her on the stand.

Now, the usual thing for the defense to do in circumstances like this is to ask for the tape and for a recess or a continuance, so the lawyer can listen to it and figure out whether it’s useful to his case. But that isn’t what this lawyer did. Instead, he moved that the tape be admitted into evidence. Keep in mind, he hasn’t heard what’s on the recording; it could be an even more damning indictment of his client than the prior testimony in the case had been. Still, he insisted that the tape itself be admitted.

The judge was having none of that: “we’ll not just play a tape . . . without any sort of thought or notion as to what is there.” And, “You can go listen to it if you want to on your own time.” The prosecutor confirmed, “He can listen to it if he wants to.” But the defense lawyer asked the court only to note his exception, and the trial continued.

Just before the motion-to-strike stage, the issue became more specific. The defense lawyer again moved the unheard tape into evidence, arguing that it was “the best evidence of what was said” in the interview, and noting that it might contain exculpatory evidence. No dice; the judge refused to allow the tape to be played merely because the lawyer thought it might be exculpatory.

At this point, I have to say that I understand where the judge is coming from. There was really no way for the lawyer to know whether the recording was exculpatory or not without listening to it; if he had asked for a recess to do so, he could have made a proper record. But he didn’t, and this is the record we’re left with. He did eventually listen to the recording, but that was only after a jury had convicted his client and recommended a lengthy prison term.

In his post-trial motion, the lawyer now argued that the recording was not only exculpatory; it was also useful for impeachment of the victim, based on some inconsistencies between trial testimony and the recorded statement. The trial court rejected the motion and sentenced the defendant to the term recommended by the jury, which was within the statutory limit but three times the higher end of the guidelines range. (Juries don’t get guideline calculations.)

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals reversed, finding an unaddressed Brady violation. The court found it unnecessary to address the appellant’s second assignment of error, which had asserted that the court should have played the tape for the jury. The court later granted en banc rehearing, but the full CAV reached the same conclusion as did the panel majority.

The justices granted the Commonwealth’s petition for appeal (that’s why the defendant’s name comes after the v. in this caption), and today, on a 5-2 vote, the justices reverse the finding of a Brady violation. The majority finds that the defendant failed to establish the first prong of the test, so the CAV incorrectly found the Brady violation.

This subject is important enough for a short primer on the Brady analysis. In order to establish a violation, a defendant has to show that (1) the prosecution withheld evidence (2) that was “favorable to the accused, either because it is exculpatory, or because it is impeaching,” and (3) the evidence was material, in that there’s a reasonable possibility that the outcome would have been different if it had been disclosed.

Today’s majority finds that the evidence was not, in fact, suppressed. Indeed, the record contains a clear offer by the prosecutor (which I quoted above) to allow the defense lawyer to listen to the tape. If the lawyer had taken her up in that offer, we might have a very different posture for this appeal. The court cites a 1986 decision in which it had held that a similar objection was waived if the defense “failed to move for a continuance or even for a recess in order to consider the material.” That ruling spells doom for the defendant in this appeal.

Justice Millette dissents, joined by Justice Goodwyn. The dissent finds that the trial court effectively shut off access to the tape at the close of the prosecution’s case in chief. In colloquy, the prosecutor (probably unwisely) told the judge that she was satisfied that there was “nothing significant or exculpatory” in the tape. The defense lawyer disagreed, although he was necessarily doing some guessing at that point; the judge ruled:

Well, I don’t think you are entitled just to play something because you think it may be exculpatory. . . . The Court is not going to admit it. If at some point if your client is convicted that tape shows something that is significant, exculpatory, he gets a new trial. So that is the way we are going with it. . . .
We will not hear any more about that over your objection. The tape will not be played. Now you have a motion to strike, and I will be glad to hear you on that.

This, the dissent concludes, “reflects the clear suppression of the evidence at trial.” This is one of those difficult areas where the defense made an imperfect objection or used an incorrect procedure, and the justices are charged with figuring out what they can do with that. The fact that this issue arises in the context of a 35-year prison term underscores the difficulty of engaging in this kind of analysis.

The dissent goes on to analyze the third prong of the Brady analysis (the majority found it unnecessary to do so) and found that the information in the recording was indeed material. Justice Lemons adds a concurring opinion, agreeing with the majority on suppression, but responding to the dissent’s analysis of materiality. He points out that the inconsistencies between the recording and trial testimony were relatively trivial; there’s no inconsistency in the accusation of sexual assault on multiple occasions.

I promised you a major appellate-procedure surprise, and I won’t abandon you, my beloved readers, without describing it. With the reversal of the CAV’s finding of a Brady violation, you’d expect the last line of this opinion to be, “reversed and final judgment,” essentially reimposing the prison term and closing the case. But that isn’t what happens, at all:

This appeal is limited to the Commonwealth’s challenge to the Court of Appeals’ decision on the Brady issue, which that court decided in Tuma’s favor pursuant to his first assignment of error. In light of that decision, the Court of Appeals was not required to address Tuma’s second assignment of error in which he challenged the trial court’s denial of his request to admit the tape into evidence (a separate issue from whether the prosecution violated Brady). That evidentiary ruling is thus not before this Court to decide. Therefore, having now decided in the Commonwealth’s favor on the Brady issue, we will remand this case to the Court of Appeals to decide Tuma’s second assignment of error.

In other words, the justices are giving the CAV a second opportunity to address the defendant’s alternate assignment of error, the one that the intermediate court had found it unnecessary to address before. That may sound perfectly normal to you, but it represents a significant departure from the way the Supreme Court has treated unresolved issues below in prior cases.

The best recent example of this is VMRC v. Clark, 281 Va. 679 (2011), which contains a ruling that I find to be wholly irreconcilable with today’s remand. See if you agree:

Finally, the [appellees], in their brief in this Court, argue that if their petition is deficient, we should address whether they should have been granted leave to amend their pleading. We decline this invitation because that issue is not properly before us. The [appellees] assigned error to the circuit court’s failure to allow them to amend in their petition for appeal in the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals did not address this assignment of error and the [appellees] did not assign cross-error. Accordingly, the issue of whether the circuit court erred in denying the [appellees] leave to amend their petition is not before us. Horner v. Dep’t of Mental Health, 268 Va. 187, 194, 597 S.E.2d 202, 206 (2004)(failure to assign cross-error to an issue the Court of Appeals did not address waived further appellate review of the matter).
. . .
Reversed and final judgment.

In Clark, the trial court had ruled against the appellees on an issue of standing, and had refused their request to amend their pleadings. They appealed to the CAV, and that court reversed on the standing ruling. The CAV didn’t address the leave-to-amend assignment, because the reversal on the standing issue made it unnecessary to decide the second issue.

On further appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the CAV’s standing ruling, agreeing with the trial court. When the appellees then (naturally) asked for a ruling on their leave-to-amend issue, the justices ruled that this issue was waived, because the appellees, who won below, had failed to assign cross-error to the CAV’s refusal to decide the amendment issue.

I recall that I was dumbfounded when I read this ruling; the idea that a successful party would have to cross-appeal after it won seems hyper-technical at best. I wrote about that decision, described it as a potential appellate trap, and moved on.

I can see nothing that distinguishes the appellate posture in Clark from this one. Tuma didn’t assign cross-error to the CAV’s failure to adjudicate the admissibility issue, so I think that further appellate consideration of admissibility is now foreclosed – at least, if Clark is still good law. The answer to your tacit question is no; I don’t have a satisfactory answer for why the Clark appellees were tossed out of court, while Tuma’s appeal is still alive.

Equity jurisdiction
Henderson v. Ayres & Hartnett, PC started out as estate litigation, but morphed into a dispute over attorney’s fees. The underlying litigation was settled, calling for the sale of what I’ll call the family farm, and distribution of the proceeds thereafter among the claimants. After the sale, Henderson’s lawyers sought payment of $130,000 in legal fees (which would make for a pretty good week on the accounting books).

Per the agreement, the sale proceeds were paid into court, and no one had any fuss with the proposed payout . . . except Henderson, who objected to the court’s paying his attorneys that much in fees. He filed a written exception to that payment. The court paid out all of the other sums and held the $130,000 pending adjudication of the legal-fee component.

Henderson demanded a jury trial, evidently claiming that he had some factual disputes with his now-erstwhile lawyers. The trial judge concluded that a jury trial was not required, so the court decided the issue, ruling in favor of the law firm. Henderson indicated his desire to appeal, and asked the trial court to fix an amount for the supersedeas bond.

This next sentence is going to jolt appellate lawyers: The trial court refused to fix a bond and directed the immediate payment of the $130,000 to the lawyers. The justices granted a writ to resolve the issue of whether the fee dispute should have been decided by judge or jury, and to review the judge’s refusal to allow supersedeas.

The Supreme Court today first takes up the supersedeas issue. It rules that the trial court erred when it ruled that supersedeas was unavailable for this kind of disposition. The supersedeas statute governs a “judgment or award,” and the trial court had concluded that the distribution of funds paid into the court did not fall within that class of cases. The justices disagree; the statute defining judgments includes this kind of distribution.

I’ll pause here to add, “Thank goodness.” As an appellate lawyer, I’m always sensitive to any procedure that would permit a trial court to thwart appellate review, if only by allowing the judgment creditor to make off with the proceeds before the appellant can get review. That, by definition, is a hot-button issue for those of us who make our livings at Ninth and Franklin. This statute exists to provide a mechanism to protect a judgment creditor’s right to collect, and as long as the funds were held in the court, the appellee couldn’t be prejudiced.

The justices next turn to the underlying question of judge vs. jury. The court rules that this matter, which started out in equity, never left equity. All issues in equity causes are decided by a judge, not a jury, unless one of a very few exceptions applies; none of those exceptions appears here. The court accordingly finds that the trial court correctly decided the fee question on its own, without empaneling a jury. The supersedeas ruling, while erroneous, is therefore harmless error, so the Supreme Court affirms the judgment.

The direct ruling in this appeal, relating to whether a judge or jury decides issues like this, is likely to reoccur very seldom, in my opinion. It’s far more likely that a trial court might refuse to provide for the statutory protection of supersedeas, so that will likely be the more enduring citation legacy of this opinion.

Res judicata
The justices wade into the saga that is Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company, a suit that has seen time in the Supreme Court of the United States and courts in Virginia and West Virginia. The SCOTUS opinion in 2009 reminded me of how grateful I am not to live in a state where judges are selected by popular ballot. (To be sure, Virginia’s method of selection of jurists isn’t perfect. But this brings to mind Winston Churchill’s indictment of democracy as the very worst form of government, excepting only all the other forms that have been tried. I shudder to imagine judges campaigning for votes for reelection.)

While this litigation has a long, involved history, the ruling today is about res judicata. I will therefore truncate what would otherwise be a ponderously long recitation of the facts and procedural posture (Justice Lemons’s opinion actually sets it forth very cogently, albeit over 15 pages or so) and get right to the substance of the ruling.

Caperton’s company had filed suit in 2000 against these defendants, alleging breach of a contract to buy coal. The plaintiffs in that suit got a judgment for $6 million, limited to the plaintiff’s lost profits for a single year. In this litigation, the plaintiffs seek another judgment for various torts, including tortious interference and business conspiracy. The trial court ruled that this action was barred by res judicata, since the operative facts of the two cases were the same.

The justices today unanimously reverse that decision and remand the case for further proceedings. The court notes today that the evidence that was admissible in the contract action was sharply limited, and the defendants in the earlier trial had openly noted that the claims were very limited. In contrast, the court today points out all sorts of evidence and issues that are essential to the tort claims, none of which would have been admissible in the contract action. Since the common-law doctrine of res judicata applies to this case (Rule 1:6 was promulgated in 2006, so it doesn’t apply here), the plaintiffs get past the procedural bar.

That point is noteworthy in one other respect. After reviewing the assignments of error for this case before today, I thought we might finally get a judicial interpretation of Rule 1:6. Obviously, that doesn’t happen today. To my knowledge, there has never been any judicial interpretation of the rule since it was promulgated.

Finally, I observed that the Supreme Court’s two justices from southwestern Virginia (the chief justice and Justice McClanahan) did not participate in the case. There’s no specific explanation given for this, but it isn’t hard to discern; it’s eminently foreseeable that each of them might well know some of the litigants or attorneys in the case, and conclude that recusal is the better part of valor here. A West Virginia justice’s incomprehensible refusal to recuse himself, after having received $3 million in campaign contributions from Massey Coal’s principal, is what brought down the volcanic ruling from SCOTUS in 2009. If you want to see a picture of that jurist, click here. He’s the one smiling at the camera in the very center of the bench – West Virginia’s chief justice.

So much for the tranquility of unanimous opinions; let’s venture out into the land of scathing dissents. Our first stop on this tour is The Doctors Company v. Women’s Healthcare Associates.

This appeal arises from a claim that should have been filed under the Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Fund. A patient went to Women’s Healthcare in late 2006 for prenatal care and eventual delivery of a baby. At the time, the parties entered into a written agreement that provided what appear to me to be some unusual precautions by the mother; the physicians expressly agreed to participate in the Fund and to inform the patient if they ceased participating. The Fund provides a form of no-fault coverage for birth-related neurological injuries, analogous to Workers’ Comp coverage for employees. Claimants don’t have to prove negligence; they get a certainty of recovery in exchange for waiving the right to sue for medical malpractice.

The baby was born with severe neurological injuries. Normally, the parents file a claim, and that’s it. But trouble arises here because at the time of delivery, Women’s Healthcare hadn’t paid into the Fund. In fact, it hadn’t done so even at the time it signed the written agreement and certification.

You might think that that failure would entitle the parents to go ahead and sue for medical malpractice. Perhaps they could have; but that isn’t the course they took. They instead sued for breach of contract, claiming (understandably) that Women’s Healthcare had breached its obligations to participate and to disclose nonparticipation. Women’s Healthcare turned the case over to its med-mal insurer, The Doctors Company.

Someone over that the insurer took a look at the suit papers and noticed that it wasn’t a claim for medical negligence at all. Being unaccustomed to defending contract claims, the insurer filed a declaratory-judgment action, seeking a declaration that there was no duty to defend such a claim. Looking at the definitions of terms in the policy, the trial court agreed with the insurer. The justices agreed to take a look at the matter.

Justice Millette writes for today’s majority, which rules that the insurer has a duty to defend. The court finds that while the primary allegations in the parents’ complaint is for failure to do things that aren’t medical care (participate in the fund; provide notice of nonparticipation), there would in fact be no compensable claim without the final element – resulting damages. The damages in this case occurred when the baby was born, so that necessarily implicates the provision of health care. In reaching this conclusion, the majority used an expansive view of the term arising from, so that the damage here may be seen as at last an indirect result of the delivery of that care.

The court’s two newest justices are unpersuaded. Justice Powell, writing for Justice McClanahan, begins her dissent by noting that the parents’ complaint specifically identifies a misrepresentation as the breach of contract. Despite the majority’s expansive reading. Here’s the relevant language from the complaint:

WHA’s failure to notify [the mother] constituted a material breach of its contract with [the mother.] . . . Had Defendants fulfilled their obligations under the contract, [the mother] would have sought medical treatment from an obstetrician who did participate in the Birth Injury Fund.

That is, according to the parents’ complaint, the doctors’ wrongful act wasn’t its delivery of the baby; it was its failure to notify the parents (and its failure to participate as promised, of course). The failure to notify also violated the doctors’ statutory obligation, and the dissent concludes that this statutory failure brings another policy exclusion into play – one that excludes from coverage any liability “arising out of any . . . violation of any statute . . .”

I’ll admit that when I was reading the majority’s opinion, I found myself a tad uncomfortable with the concept that a med-mal insurer should have to defend a contract claim. Justice Powell brings that concern to the fore with this observation:

Such an approach is destined to lead to unreasonable results, such as those in this case: a medical malpractice insurer having to defend a breach of contract claim that does not require the victim to prove that any malpractice actually occurred.

She also notes that since this isn’t a med-mal case, the insurer isn’t protected by the med-mal cap, so its liability could exceed what it would have to pay if this had been an ordinary medical negligence case.

In the end, I find myself agreeing with the dissent here. The insurer undertook to defend doctors from claims that they made mistakes, even sloppy ones; it never undertook to defend claims that the same doctors lied or breached obligations that didn’t involve the provision of health care.

Local governments
As a former government attorney, I found the issues in Fluvanna County v. Davenport & Company to be fascinating. It’s a suit by a board of supervisors against its former financial advisors. The county wanted to build a new high school, and it wished to finance the construction through bonds. The suit alleges that the advisor gave the county bad advice, as a result of which the county issued the wrong kind of bonds, at a rate that was 1.2% higher than the rate it could have obtained. When you borrow a gazillion bucks for a project like this, a one-percent difference can add up; indeed, the county contended that it was out $18 million, so that’s what it sued for.

The advisor had an interesting response. It contended that the controversy was not justiciable, because in order to prove its case, the county would have to adduce evidence of the individual supervisors’ motives in voting as they did. That sounded good enough for the judge designate assigned to the case; he sustained a demurrer without leave to amend.

I’ve written elsewhere that one of the surest ways for a judge to ensure that his ruling gets very careful scrutiny in Richmond is to sustain a demurrer without giving the plaintiff even one chance to amend. This isn’t based on any inside information I have, but on my sense that the justices feel that most litigants deserve at least one opportunity to fix a defective pleading, unless the proposed amendment would be objectively futile.

But a refused amendment doesn’t come into play here; the Supreme Court today decides this case based on the legislative immunity doctrine. Related to the separation of powers that’s mandated by the Constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth, this doctrine protects members of legislative bodies from being summoned to court to explain why they voted the way they did. Literally, it protects them from any liability, or even a summons, to talk about “speech or debate” on legislative matters.

The justices today reverse the judgment, semi-unanimously; Justice McClanahan agrees with the ultimate destination, though she would take a different route to get there. The court first incorporates caselaw from elsewhere to adopt legislative immunity for local legislators (the state constitution only extends it to members of the General Assembly; now Virginia common law brings all local legislators into the protective fold). In this sense, the court actually agrees with the trial court, that this issue does implicate the separation-of-powers doctrine.

The majority then goes on to hold that the immunity belongs to the legislators, who can waive it. And they’ve done so here, by filing this suit and thereby calling into question their own legislative motives. What the trial court had done was to allow the financial advisor to insist upon an immunity that belonged to the opposing party.

Justice McClanahan would take a similar route to affirm. She thinks it’s inaccurate to call this a separation-of-powers issue. The separation doctrine, as set out in our constitution, prevents a branch of government from exercising powers that have been allocated to a different branch. Here, the county was asking the court to perform a core judicial function – adjudicating a claim for monetary damages. The county wasn’t asking the court to invalidate the legislation; that would indeed have been a judicial incursion onto legislative turf, and a long string of caselaw prohibits courts from sticking their figurative noses into the question of whether a given piece of legislation is wise.

It doesn’t matter immensely which of these approaches is the better one; I’ll admit that I slightly prefer the beauty and simplicity of Justice McClanahan’s concurrence. In any event, this case is headed back to the trial court for fuller proceedings.

Church property
“It’s always worrisome when there’s trouble in God’s house.”

That’s how I began my analysis of Protestant Episcopal Church v. Truro Church, back in June 2010. In that appeal, the justices reversed a ruling arising from the separation of local Episcopal churches from the national organization, in a dispute over church policies. The court sent the matter back for reevaluation of the parties’ claims to church property, with the issue being: When a local church separates from the national denomination, who gets to keep the keys to the building?

In an expansive opinion (42 pages in all including an eight-page concurrence; easily the longest decision released today) under the caption, The Falls Church v. Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA, the Supreme Court largely affirms a ruling that the national organization and its diocese get to retain the church building and pretty much everything in it, while the breakaway congregation gets almost nothing. The court affirms a trial judge’s rulings based on “neutral principles of law,” which is the only basis upon which courts are permitted to adjudicate matters involving church property. For First Amendment reasons, the courts can’t adjudicate matters of church doctrine.

The national organization and the diocese win almost a complete victory today; the case is remanded only for a recalculation of amounts that the local congregation may retain, based on a change in the date after which donations should be regarded as belonging to the local folks. In a nutshell, the court rules that whatever property the local congregation had was held in trust for the national organization and the diocese. The deciding factor is a statutory change in 1993 that reversed Virginia’s long-standing prohibition of local churches’ holding property for the benefit of larger hierarchical churches.

The real hero of this case is probably Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows, who sat through a 22-day trial (after he had previously been reversed by the Supreme Court) and issued a 113-page letter opinion. In case you think that’s a typo, I’ll spell it out: one hundred thirteen pages, and I bet they were single-spaced, too. The fact that his many rulings therein were almost entirely affirmed is remarkable.

Habeas corpus
In addition to the equity case described above (Henderson v. Ayres & Hartnett), there’s another win-before-losing decision today – Sigmon v. Director is a habeas petition brought directly in the Supreme Court.

What, you can do that? Yes; under state statute, a habeas corpus petition may be brought in “the Supreme Court or any circuit court.” This decision isn’t an appeal at all; it’s brought under the court’s original jurisdiction.

There’s a procedural twist here: In addition to this habeas petition, Sigmon is currently appealing his conviction, through the normal appellate channels, and that appeal is now pending in the Supreme Court. This procedural anomaly led the court to direct the parties to brief the following question:

Is a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed in this Court prior to the conclusion of the petitioner’s direct appeal of his criminal conviction premature, requiring dismissal of the petition without prejudice, or may the petition for writ of habeas corpus and the direct appeal proceed simultaneously?

I have to admit, I’ve never heard of a simultaneous appeal and habeas petition before. Evidently, neither had the justices; today’s opinion, written by the chief justice, appears to address this as an issue of first impression. There are no prior decisions interpreting this precise question.

After analyzing the special place that this writ has in our jurisprudence, the court concludes that there’s no reason why an aggrieved criminal defendant needs to wait until his direct appeal has concluded before he starts the habeas process. After all, as the opinion notes, some issues (such as ineffective assistance of counsel) can’t be reached on direct appeal. In those instances, the petitioner shouldn’t be faced with an unpalatable choice: Forgo direct appeal in order to file a quick habeas petition, or rot in prison until his appellate options are exhausted before starting a potentially meritorious habeas process. As of now, it’s possible to file both at the same time.

Alas for our hero, his victory proves fleeting. After spending nine pages validating Sigmon’s right to proceed, the court takes just four and a half to reject his claims on the merits. Using standard Strickland analysis, the court determines that Sigmon has failed to establish that the alleged errors of which he complains resulted in a different outcome at trial than he would have seen if his lawyer had acted flawlessly. He admitted to having entered a cousin’s home and stealing a blank check; his explanation was that he just wanted the cousin’s phone number. He helpfully added that he tore off the rest of the check and threw it away; but that explanation fails to move even a single justice today.

Finally, kudos to Jennifer Franklin, an alumna of the Chief Staff Attorney’s Office, who accepted an appointment from the Supreme Court to represent Sigmon in this case. Since habeas proceedings are civil, not criminal, a petitioner isn’t automatically entitled to a court-appointed lawyer. As I’ve mentioned recently, receiving a request like this from an appellate court is an honor; accepting it is the mark of a real professional.

Land use
If you’re a word-nerd like me, you’ll enjoy Newberry Station HOA v. Fairfax County. This is a challenge by a homeowners’ association to the grant of a special exception by a county Board of Supervisors. The exception was granted to permit construction of a bus-maintenance facility for WMATA, the regional transit authority.

The application was filed by a private developer. The county’s Planning Commission recommended approval; the association submitted comments before the Board hearing, complaining about things like noise and hazardous materials near their neighborhood.

On the day of the BoS hearing, two members of the Board spoke up beforehand; one said that he was on WMATA’s board of directors, and the other one was an alternate director. The disclosure out of the way, the two members participated in the discussion of the proposal and in the vote, which ended up 6-3 in favor of approval.

The association filed suit in circuit court, contending (1) that the two members of the WMATA board should have recused themselves from participating in the process, and (2) the approval wasn’t fairly debatable. The trial court sided with the county.

The Supreme Court today affirms. The primary opinion, written by Justice Mims, construes the financial-interest statute in such a way that the two supervisors weren’t required to recuse themselves, since the statute only requires such recusal in the event of membership on the board of a private company; not a public agency like WMATA. The directors of that agency don’t receive any compensation other than reimbursement of expenses, and the disclosure statute is directed to prevent someone from voting on a matter that might result in a financial benefit to himself.

The court also finds that the issues involved in the grant of the exception were fairly debatable. As appellate lawyers know, that’s the most lenient standard of review known in Virginia law. In essence, all the respondent has to do in order to prevail is establish that the issue is one upon which reasonable people can disagree. The justices don’t find anything technically wrong with the process, and they agree that the matter was one within the discretion of the Board of Supervisors.