Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—November 16

1993—In Steffan v. Perry, a trifecta of Carter appointees on the D.C. Circuit—Abner J. Mikva, Patricia M. Wald, and Harry T. Edwards—rules that Department of Defense Directives excluding homosexuals from military service cannot constitutionally be applied to someone who has identified himself as a homosexual but who has not been shown to have engaged in homosexual conduct. Purporting to apply rational-basis review, the opinion authored by chief judge Mikva determines that it is irrational for the Department of Defense to employ the rebuttable presumption that (in Mikva’s summary) “a person who, by his own admission, ‘desires’ to engage in homosexual conduct has a ‘propensity’ to engage in repeated homosexual conduct.” One year later—after Mikva’s resignation—the en banc D.C. Circuit reverses Mikva’s ruling (with Wald, Edwards, and Clinton appointee Judith Rogers dissenting).

2009—In a unanimous per curiam opinion in Wong v. Belmontes, the Supreme Court summarily reverses the ruling by a divided Ninth Circuit panel that a murderer who had been sentenced to death received ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of his trial. The Ninth Circuit opinion was written by arch-activist Judge Stephen Reinhardt and was joined by Judge Richard Paez. In dissent was Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain. That’s the third time in this same case that the Supreme Court has reversed or vacated a ruling by Reinhardt (though Reinhardt can take consolation in the fact that one overturning was by a 5-4 vote and another was a “GVR”—an order granting, vacating and remanding in light of an intervening ruling by the Court).

Among other things, the Court states that it “simply cannot comprehend the assertion by the Court of Appeals that this case did not involve ‘needless suffering’”:

The jury saw autopsy photographs showing Steacy McConnell’s mangled head, her skull crushed by 15 to 20 blows from a steel dumbbell bar the jury found to have been wielded by Belmontes. McConnell’s corpse showed numerous “defensive bruises and contusions on [her] hands, arms, and feet,” which “plainly evidenced a desperate struggle for life at [Belmontes’] hands.” Belmontes left McConnell to die, but officers found her still fighting for her life before ultimately succumbing to the injuries caused by the blows from Belmontes. The jury also heard that this savage murder was committed solely to prevent interference with a burglary that netted Belmontes $100 he used to buy beer and drugs for the night. McConnell suffered, and it was clearly needless.

The Court also notes that the Ninth Circuit majority, in addressing for the first time the murderer’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, suddenly “changed its view of the evidence.” Mitigation evidence that it had, in an earlier phase of the litigation, called “substantial” somehow became “cursory” and “insubstantial.” Whereas Reinhardt had concluded that “[t]here can be little doubt” that counsel’s performance “was prejudicial,” the Supreme Court labels “fanciful” the notion that any prejudice resulted.

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