Tuesday, November 1, 2005
U.S. High Court Overturns Ninth Circuit Ruling on Pro Se Defendant’s Right to Law Library Access
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday overturned a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that granted a new trial to a convicted carjacker because he was largely denied access to a law library before and during trial.
In a unanimous, per curiam decision, the justices said the Ninth Circuit panel overstepped its limited habeas corpus jurisdiction by overruling state courts on an issue that the nation’s highest court has never addressed.
Joe Garcia Espitia sought a writ of habeas corpus after California courts affirmed his conviction. He claimed that as a self-represented defendant, his Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated because he was not allowed—despite repeated requests and court orders—to use the law library before his trial and was given only four hours access during trial, before closing arguments.
In an unpublished memorandum, the Ninth Circuit agreed. That panel cited Faretta v. California (1975) 422 U. S. 806, which established that defendants generally have a right to represent themselves, and Bribiesca v. Galaza (1990) 215 F. 3d 1015, which cited Faretta in holding that self-represented defendants have a right of reasonable access to legal materials needed for the defense.
But the high court held yesterday that Bribiesca does not control in habeas corpus cases subject to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. AEDPA provides, among other things, that federal courts cannot grant habeas corpus relief from state convictions unless the ruling of the highest state court was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court.
The justices noted yesterday that several other federal circuits have considered the issue over the years and held that Faretta does not guarantee law library access. The Sixth Circuit, for example, ruled in 1990 that by waiving counsel, a defendant “also relinquished his access to a law library,” and the Supreme Court noted parenthetically yesterday that Garcia Espatia “[o]f course...declined, as was his right, to be represented by a lawyer with unlimited access to legal materials.”
The high court’s ruling leaves unresolved the core question of whether there is a federal constitutional right to law library access for pro se defendants.
“That question cannot be resolved here,” the justices explained, “as it is clear that Faretta does not, as [AEDPA] requires, ‘clearly establis[h]’ the law library access right.”
The court continued:
“In fact, Faretta says nothing about any specific legal aid that the State owes a pro se criminal defendant. The Bribiesca court and the court below therefore erred in holding, based on Faretta, that a violation of a law library access right is a basis for federal habeas relief.”
The case is Kane v. Garcia Espitia, 04-1538.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company