Friday, September 11, 2009
High Court Reports Jump in Habeas Petitions in Past Year
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The number of death penalty-related habeas corpus petitions on which the California Supreme Court took action in the last year nearly doubled over 2007-2008 levels, while the total number of opinions issued held steady and overall filings decreased, the Supreme Court said yesterday.
Based on annual workload statistics covering Sept. 1 through Aug. 31, the official court year for statistical purposes, the high court’s justices acted by order on 49 habeas petitions—the most ever disposed of in a single year—and issued 110 opinions, three more than the previous year.
But the total number of petitions for review and filings in original proceedings decreased by nine percent during the same period, dropping from the previous year’s all-time high of 10,400 to a level near that of the 2006-07 period. Despite the drop, the 9,556 filings in the last year represent the third highest level in the past decade.
Just under half of the opinions issued last year involved civil cases, while the remainder were split between capital and other criminal cases. Automatic appeals arising from judgments of death accounted for 22 of the opinions—seven fewer than the previous year—with two others relating to habeas petitions on death penalty judgments.
Seven of last year’s death penalty-related habeas corpus petitions resulted in an order to show cause, including five involving claims under a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case barring the execution of mentally retarded individuals, but seven others were dismissed as moot and 35 were denied. The court acted on 26 such petitions the prior year, on which only three show cause orders were issued.
The Supreme Court said that the spike in total matters in 2007-08 was attributable to the court granting and holding approximately 250 cases pending the resolution of two cases decided in July 2007—People v. Black 41 Cal.4th 799 and People v. Sandoval 41 Cal.4th 825—related to sentencing issues arising under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier that year in Cunningham v. California 549 U.S.270.
The court said part of that spike also occurred because it assigned extra staff to assist in clearing the backlog of non-capital habeas corpus matters caused by a large increase in filings in the last decade.
The court has issued statistics since 1996 based on a September-through-August court year, which it says best corresponds with the flow of its opinion production.
In other actions noted in the report, the California Supreme Court last year:
•Ordered publication of four opinions by the Court of Appeal, while ordering 13 opinions depublished.
•Appointed an implementation committee to recommend rules and procedures to govern a court-appointed but independent Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions following a request by the Commission on Judicial Performance for a mechanism to offer opinions on judicial ethics from an official source.
Although the Supreme Court adopted the implementation committee’s recommendations and report, it awaited the final budget determinations before proceeding. No funding was provided for staff in the budget appropriation, but the court nevertheless anticipates appointing members of the new committee in the coming months, the Supreme Court said.
•Continued studying changes to the processing of death penalty appeals and related habeas corpus petitions, including the court’s proposal to amend the state constitution to permit transfer of death penalty appeals to the Courts of Appeal.
•Participated a special one-day conference focused on the court in conjunction with the Berkeley Law School at UC Berkeley.
•Heard oral argument in Riverside County at the Palm Desert Campus of California State University San Bernardino, continuing its policy of holding one session per year at a site other than its normal place of oral argument.
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