Supreme Court Action: Habeas Corpus and Apply the Federal Arbitration Act to State Proceedings

The Supreme Court issued two opinions this morning.  The first is a habeas corpus case where the underlying issue is where a juror was struck for cause due to ambiguous statements made about applying the death penalty during the voir dire.  That case is White v. Wheeler (14-1372).  Wheeler was convicted of two murders and sentenced to death in Kentucky.  One juror, identified as Juror 638, responded to questions about his ability to impose the death as a sentencing option with answers that went back and forth.  The opinion describes these statements:

In response to the judge’s questions about his personal beliefs on the death penalty, Juror 638 said, “I’m not sure that I have formed an opinion one way or the other. I believe there are arguments on both sides of the—of it.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 126a. When asked by the prosecution about his ability to consider all available penalties, Juror 638 noted he had “never been confronted with that situation in a, in a real-life sense of having to make that kind of determination.” Id., at 131a. “So it’s difficult for me,” he explained, “to judge how I would I guess act, uh.” Ibid. The prosecution sought to clarify Juror 638’s answer, asking if the juror meant he was “not absolutely certain whether [he] could realistically consider” the death penalty. Id., at 132a. Juror 638 replied, “I think that would be the most accurate way I could answer your question.” Ibid. During defense counsel’s examination, Juror 638 described himself as “a bit more contemplative on the issue of taking a life and, uh, whether or not we have the right to take that life.” Id., at 133a. Later, however, he expressed his belief that he could consider all the penalty options. Id., at 134a.

The judge considered the prosecution’s motion to strike and, after reviewing the juror’s statements, granted the motion.  The Kentucky Supreme Court upheld Wheeler’s conviction and sentence on direct appeal.  Wheeler filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court.  The District Court dismissed but the Sixth Circuit reversed and granted the petition.

The Supreme Court reversed.  It emphasized the deferential approach to state courts required under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) unless the decision was contrary to federal law as decided by the Supreme Court.  The Court reviewed its precedents and concluded that under the deference requirement the Sixth Circuit erred in granting the petition.  The Court issued the opinion per curiam.  There were no dissents.

The second case involved the application of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) as controlling over state law.  Readers may remember that the Court enforced an arbitration clause in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 333, awhile back.  That case came out of federal court where the Ninth Circuit enforced precedent (the Discover Bank case) that made waivers of class action suits unenforceable. The Court instead said the FAA preempted state law to the contrary and enforced the arbitration clause.

The present case, DIRECTV, INC. v.  Imburgia (14-462), concerns a variation of the Concepcion holding.  DIRECTV was sued in state court by individuals believing early termination fees violated California law.  The arbitration clause included in DIRECTV contracts limited dispute resolution to arbitration with a provision that waived class arbitration.  There was another provision stating that if “law of your state” makes the class arbitration waiver unenforceable then the entire arbitration clause was void.  The California trial court denied a request to send the matter to binding arbitration.  The California Court of Appeals agreed citing Discover Bank.

The Supreme Court essentially ruled that “law of your state” did not include state law that was invalid under federal law.  The Court cited multiple reasons for this conclusion, reasoning that in other circumstances courts would not rely on invalid state law in making decisions.   The “law” in this case includes the ruling in Concepcion which nullified the application of Discover Bank.  The Court made it pretty clear that there was no way of getting around the Concepcion ruling.  Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Alito, and Kagan.  Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion.  Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justice Sotomayor.  Justice Thomas believes that the FAA does not apply to proceedings in state court.  Justice Ginsburg would read the entire contract as benefitting the consumer rather than corporate drafters.  He expresses similar views as to Justice Thomas but with a little more depth.

Mark

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