Today, the Supreme Court, in a summary disposition (that is, without seeing any need for briefing on the merits or oral argument), unanimously reversed a Sixth Circuit panel decision that ruled that a capital defendant, Van Hook, did not receive effective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of his capital trial. The Court didn’t think the question a close one: “[W]e think it clear that Van Hook’s attorneys met the constitutional standard of competence under the correct standard.” Its reversal puts an emphatic end to what would seem to be a rogue panel’s series of judicial frolics.
No one familiar with the Sixth Circuit will be surprised that the panel at issue consisted of Carter appointees Boyce F. Martin Jr. and Gilbert S. Merritt Jr. and Clinton appointee Karen Nelson Moore. As the Supreme Court opinion explains, in 2006 the Sixth Circuit panel reversed a district court decision denying habeas relief to Van Hook, only to have the en banc Sixth Circuit vacate its ruling (by an 8-7 vote on a very polarized court). On remand, the panel in 2008 then came up with other grounds to grant habeas relief, only to have the en banc Sixth Circuit again vacate its ruling. (I haven’t found these rulings online.) In March 2009, the panel issued the ruling that the Court today reversed.