California Attorney General Bill Lockyer urged the Supreme Court yesterday to shield state courts from being second-guessed on criminal cases by the judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, the most liberal federal appellate court, reports the Los Angeles Times. He is challenging a 9th Circuit ruling that reversed the 9-year-old drug conviction of a Los Angeles man because of possible race bias in the selection of one juror. The justices should make clear there is “a presumption of correctness for state court fact-finding,” said Lockyer. Lockyer complained that 320 lawyers at the state Department of Justice spend most of their time responding to criminal appeals in the federal courts.
In the U.S., most crimes are prosecuted by the states. Convicted state criminals may first appeal in state courts and then in the federal courts through a so-called writ of habeas corpus. In 1996, Congress tried to make it harder for federal judges to grant appeals from state inmates. The law said factual issues decided by state judges “shall be presumed correct” and cannot be overturned unless there is “clear and convincing evidence” that a mistake was made. Lockyer said 9th Circuit judges seemed to ignore the law when they reversed state criminal convictions. In the case at issue before the Supreme Court, a 2-1 9th Circuit panel decision said a prosecutor’s reasons for excluding a young juror were “wholly implausible, unpersuasive and a pretext for discrimination on the basis of race.” Lockyer appealed to the Supreme Court, and lawyers for 16 other states joined California in urging protection from such rulings.