A Criminal Enterprise

Court-Watching: Smith v. Spisak

Posted in Cases, News by Bidish J. Sarma on October 21, 2009

On October 13, I sat in on the two oral arguments scheduled for the morning: Padilla v. Kentucky and Smith v. Spisak.  For this post on the Spisak case, I’ve relied on my own notes from the argument, the transcript posted on the Supreme Court’s website, and some media observations after the argument.

The State’s cert petition to the Supreme Court raised two issues for the Court to resolve: (1) Whether the Sixth Circuit’s ruling that the trial court’s jury instructions violated Mr. Spisak’s constitutional rights contravened the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA); and (2) Whether the Sixth Circuit’s ruling that the defense lawyer’s closing argument rendered his assistance ineffective contravened AEDPA.  When the Court agreed to hear the case, those concerned with the rights of criminal defendants shuddered, particularly because the Supreme Court had already remanded the case once before in 2007.  See Hudson v. Spisak, 128 S. Ct. 373 (2007) (noting that three liberal Justices – Justice Stevens, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Breyer – would deny the petition for writ of certiorari).  By all accounts – before and after oral argument – it appears the defendant (and the Sixth Circuit) should brace for a ruling that puts him back under a sentence of death.

To the extent facts about offenders influence how courts view the legal issues presented in a case, Mr. Spisak has effectively made himself as unsympathetic as possible.  The State’s brief on the merits highlights some of the key facts from the notorious Ohio case:

Respondent Frank G. Spisak, Jr. killed Horace T. Rickerson, Timothy Sheehan, and Brian Warford in a series of shootings at Cleveland State University in 1982. . . . He said that his actions were motivated by his hatred of gay people, blacks, and Jews, and he specifically targeted the campus of Cleveland State University. . . . During his days-long testimony, Spisak . . . identified Hitler as his spiritual leader. . . . Other cues during the trial reinforced the depravity of Spisak’s beliefs. Before trial, Spisak grew a moustache and shaved it to resemble Hitler’s. And on cross examination, after the prosecutor read into evidence a violent letter from Spisak that was laced with racist epithets, Spisak declared “HeilHitler” and performed the corresponding salute.

With these facts in the background, Richard Cordray, the Attorney General of Ohio, began his oral argument on behalf of the State.  He first addressed the Sixth Circuit’s ruling that the trial court’s jury instructions violated the rule set forth by the Supreme Court in Mills v. Maryland.  Justice Sotomayor immediately asked the first question, pointing out an oddity to the Sixth Circuit’s ruling:

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Why? I — I have been trying to figure out why the State court would know in its decisionmaking that Mills commanded a different result when Mills was issued after the State denied its petition for rehearing.

MR. CORDRAY: It’s a bit of a conundrum, Your Honor, because Mills was issued after the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision here, but before it became final on direct review when cert was denied by this Court in March of 1989.

Kent Scheidegger over at Crime & Consequences elaborates on the conundrum here (http://www.crimeandconsequences.com/crimblog/2009/10/spisak-new-rules-and-justice-s.html), and appreciates the signal that Sotomayor may be willing to enforce AEDPA “vigorously.”

As the argument proceeded, Mr. Cordray explained why the State believes the Sixth Circuit’s ruling is a new extension of the rule enshrined in Mills.  One might wonder if Mills itself is in trouble with this Court, or if the Court will give a green light to states that want to stop the practice of instructing the jury about the effect of one juror holding out on a death sentence:

MR. CORDRAY: At the time, the instructions pushed the jury toward unanimity one way or the other. Do the aggravators outweigh the mitigators or do they not? Since that time, the Ohio Supreme Court as a matter of practice has been willing to go further and instruct the jury, or have the jury be instructed, that if a single one of you feels that the aggravators do not outweigh the mitigators, that will preclude a death sentence. But that has never been constitutionally required by this Court. It is an extension of Mills v. Maryland that has never been so held by this Court, and in fact is a source of a — of a significant overwhelming majority of circuits the opposite way.

The State’s argument proceeded on to the second issue – the defense counsel’s closing argument.  Based on the questions the Justices asked Respondent, it seemed that the State’s argument here was well-received by most Justices.

Mr. Michael Benza argued on Mr. Spisak’s behalf.  At the outset, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia jumped on his claim that the defense counsel’s closing argument constituted ineffectiveness assistance.  Even Justice Breyer seemed to endorse the trial counsel’s strategy to agree that his client was a cold-blooded and unsympathetic murderer, but argue that he is clearly mentally ill and therefore should not be executed:

JUSTICE BREYER: What would you have done? I mean, I’m — I’m not experienced in this. But I mean, I have heard the other side and I have read the argument. And it makes sense logically to say he has the worst defendant he has ever seen. He’s murdered lots of people in cold blood. He gets up on the stand and says: I’m going to kill a lot more. He sounds totally bonkers. And — and he says to the jury, I can’t tell you that what he did was not aggravating; it was terrible. I can’t tell you that there’s anything here that should make you feel better about him; there is nothing. But we are a nation of people who are humane and our law says don’t put a person to death when he fills with his nuttiness that third prong, which is a lower standard of insanity than I had to meet. But it’s clearly met and here are the experts; I point to their testimony, and that’s what they said. So be humane.

In what seems to be a rare occurrence, Justice Scalia agreed with Justice Breyer, and went even further: “I thought it was a brilliant closing argument. . . . This was an extraordinary trial, and it seems to me that the — that the technique that — that counsel used to try to get mercy for this fellow was — was the best that could have been done.”

After Mr. Benza defended his position, he and the Justices were sidetracked for several minutes on an interesting question about AEDPA deference.  I explore this discussion below.  That peripheral discussion became so involved that Justice Ginsburg had to remind the Respondent that he had a limited amount of time: “Mr. Benza, you might want to use what time is remaining to deal with the other issue, which we haven’t talked about at all.”

On the Mills issue, Mr. Benza gave a straightforward answer to the timing conundrum originally raised by Justice Sotomayor:

Teague says that the decision for application of a newly established law or a new established constitutional rule is predicated on the denial of direct appeal, which in this case would be the cert denied by this Court of the direct appeal of the case, which happened in 1989, a year after the decision in Mills was handed down.

He then argued that the Ohio jury instructions were confusing because they would lead a reasonable juror to believe that there must be unanimity on the existence of a mitigating factor before it could be considered and given effect by any juror.

As this AP article points out, “most of the justices were skeptical of Benza’s arguments.”  There is little doubt about how this case will come out.

Although not central to the dispute in this case, Mr. Cordray raised a suggestion that later became the source of a major discussion between the Justices and Mr. Benza.  In arguing that appellate courts must give deference to trial court decisions under AEDPA, Mr. Cordray explained why the trial court’s summary disposition of the ineffective assistance claim warranted deference under the two-prong Strickland test:

If the court simply gives a summary affirmance or summary disposition and doesn’t specify which prong, I think the Court has to give deference under both prongs, because the alternative would be to give deference under neither prong, which is inconsistent with the — the AEDPA statement that we have to did defer to an adjudication on the merits by a State court.

Mr. Benza, however, argued that the trial court’s summary adjudication did not trigger AEDPA’s deference requirement:

MR.BENZA: We have no idea whether they decided that there was deficient performance, but no prejudice — that there was, in fact, deficient performance, but no prejudice, that this was not deficient because it was reasonable strategy. It is also possible that the lower courts were misapplying [the law].

I found this line of argumentation fascinating because it implicates the vast majority of decisions made by trial courts in habeas review.  Rather than give detailed reasons for their rulings, many trial courts deal with claims summarily.  I have always found it troubling that such cursory explanations become essentially unreviewable on appeal.  Apparently, the Respondent’s lawyer in this case agrees.  Justice Scalia does not, however:

JUSTICE SCALIA: When we — when you don’t know what a lower court has done, the rule is you assume the best, not the worst. Isn’t that the standard rule of review?

But, Mr. Benza elaborated on the problem as it applied to this case: “The problem that you have in that is, when you try to apply AEDPA to this particular claim, you don’t know how the state court, in fact, decided this case.”

Justice Breyer explained that the Respondent’s position has far-reaching implications:

JUSTICE BREYER: How — how does that work? Certainly, it’s a fairly common thing, that the defendant will make — let’s say, 20 arguments, maybe he would even number them. And it’s fairly common to find a court of appeals in a state that says, as to argument number 17, and then they characterize it, we reject that argument.

Mr. Benza took the (gutsy) position that:

MR. BENZA: I would — I think the issue then would become that, when a state court chooses to summarily deny, without evaluation, an explanation of the merits of the claim, that, when it comes to habeas review, the constraints of AEDPA are lifted.

The Justices took exception with this proposition, and worried that it would overburden lower courts to require that they elaborate on all of their decisions.  Yet, if giving reasons for rulings is the essence of providing justice, Mr. Benza’s proposition does not seem so crazy to me.

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3 Responses

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  1. […] v. Spisak, argued last week, appears to have gone to the executioner.  Biddish Sarma at A Criminal Enterprise notes   that “[w]hen the Court agreed to hear the case, those concerned with the rights of […]

  2. […] Commentators note Smith v. Spisak, recently argued, appears to have gone to the executioner.  Biddish Sarma at A Criminal Enterprise notes   that “[w]hen the Court agreed to hear the case, those concerned with the rights of criminal defendants shuddered, particularly because the Supreme Court had already remanded the case once before in 2007.. . . By all accounts – before and after oral argument – it appears the defendant (and the Sixth Circuit) should brace for a ruling that puts him back under a sentence of death.” […]

  3. […] Hall bietet eine Vorschau auf die Anhörung, das Transkript der Anhörung finden Sie hier, und A Criminal Enterprise liefert eine detaillierte Analyse der […]


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