Appellate Judge Stephen Reinhardt took his colleagues to task in a testy dissent saying that while the Supreme Court may “create its own topsy-turvy world of constitutional reality,” judges cannot become “Humpty Dumpties” to make words mean what they choose them to mean.
The verbal blistering came in the case of Tara Williams, who is serving life in prison without parole for driving a getaway car in a Long Beach liquor store robbery. While she waited in the car with her infant son, two friends went inside, shot the store owner and grabbed $6 and food stamps.
Her case, which has been to the U.S. Supreme Court twice, included a charge of felony murder against Williams because she participated in a crime in which someone was killed, even though she was not the shooter.
During jury deliberations in her trial, the trial judge dismissed the lone juror holding out for acquittal. This was prompted after jurors sent a note that one juror was refusing to deliberate because the juror did not agree with the felony murder rule. The juror was dismissed and replaced with an alternate and Williams was convicted.
Williams argued that her constitutional right to a fair trial under the Sixth Amendment was violated by the trial judge’s inquiry into potential jury bias because it improperly intruded on jury deliberations. Second she argued that it is likely the holdout juror was excused because of his views on her innocence.
In the Friday ruling, the split panel rejected Williams’ claims under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), finding that the lower state courts’ interpretation of the facts was “not unreasonable.”
“We don’t approve of what the trial court did in this case,” wrote Judge Alex Kozinski for the majority. But, he added, that this is a habeas petition and not a direct appeal, thus “we are not permitted to second=-guess state-court judges because we might have reached a different result in the first instance.”
This set off the heated dissent by Reinhardt. The majority approved the state appeals court finding that the holdout juror was dismissed for “being unwilling to follow the law.”
“There is one problem, however – the trial court did not dismiss Williams’ [juror] for being unwilling to follow the law. To the contrary, the trial court’s reasoning is plain: ‘I’m going to dismiss the juror, but not because he’s not deliberating and not because he’s not following the law,’” Reinhardt wrote, quoting the trial judge.
Although that’s what the trial judge said, the appeals court found the direct opposite, Reinhardt said.
“Despite the clear factual error, the majority has been persuaded that it must deny relief,” he said.
“Although the AEDPA, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, may create its own topsy-turvy world of constitutional reality, it does not go so far as to allow words to have the direct opposite meaning of what they are commonly understood to have and of the meaning that was clearly intended by the speaker,” he said.
“AEDPA, however puzzling it may be from a constitutional standpoint, does not transform judges into Humpty Dumpties; we cannot make a word mean just what we choose it to mean,” he said citing “Alice in Wonderland.”
In this case’s two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, it first reinstated Williams’ conviction, which had been reversed by the 9th Circuit in 2011. The 9th Circuit then simply entered a perfunctory order rejecting Williams’ habeas claim in 2013. But the Supreme Court reversed again, ordering the 9th Circuit to provide full review of the merits of Williams’ fair trial claim.
Joining Kozinski to form the majority vote was visiting Judge Ronald Whyte of San Jose. The case may be ripe for an 11-judge en banc review by the 9th Circuit, which regularly happens when a visiting judge casts the deciding vote in a case.
Case: Williams v. Johnson, No. 07-56127