AEDPA smites Hercules (again)

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) authorizes a federal habeas court to grant  relief to a prisoner whose state court conviction “involved an unreasonable application of . . . clearly established  Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). It is settled that  a federal habeas court may overturn a state court’s application of federal law only if it is so erroneous that “there  is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court’s decision conflicts with this Court’s precedents.” Harrington v. Richter, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786 (2011).

At his rape trial, the defendant unsuccessfully sought to introduce evidence for the purpose of showing that the rape victim previously reported that he had assaulted her but that the police had been unable to substantiate those allegations.  The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed.  Applying the deferential standard of review under AEDPA, the federal district court denied habeas relief.   In a split decision, the Ninth Circuit, behaving more like Hercules than an umpire, decided that the Nevada Supreme Court and the district court got it wrong.   Finding no Supreme Court case clearly on point, the Ninth Circuit applied its own precedents to unearth clearly established law that was violated by the rulings below.  On June 3, 2013, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion reversing the Ninth Circuit.  See Nevada v. Jackson, No. 12–694, 569 U. S. ____ (2013).

Image credit:  Abu-Simbel-Rameses-smite-Cherubini per ascendingpassage.com

Image credit: Abu-Simbel-Rameses-smite-Cherubini per ascendingpassage.com

When it comes to AEDPA, federal habeas corpus actions and federal trial judges, the Court has again made it plain (for the umpteenth time) that there is no place for Hercules, the all-knowing judge who seeks “justice” no matter the situation. For those of us who believe ourselves far better equipped to apply rules rather than divining abstract notions of injustice, that is a great comfort.

RGK

Get rid of diversity jurisdiction

Conservatives in Congress want to downsize government including the federal judiciary.  Most particularly, these folks want to get the federal judiciary out of the daily lives of our citizens, and they also want to empower the states to function without federal judges mucking with state law.  If the conservatives who are behind this movement are intellectually honest then there is a real easy way to begin accomplishing that task.  Moreover, this easy way won’t gut the ability of the federal judiciary to function in those spheres that even  conservatives agree are proper.

Congress could do away with diversity jurisdiction.  Sure, that would mean that some corporations would  find themselves in “hell holes” where judges and juries are overly sympathetic to plaintiffs.  On the other hand, there are many other jurisdictions that are not particularly plaintiff-friendly.  For example, Nebraska doesn’t allow punitive damages for plaintiffs in most cases.

Diversity jurisdiction for the federal courts once made sense.  No so anymore.  I would be happy to trade diversity jurisdiction for an end to (or even a lessening of) judicial sequestration.  And, even if that trade-off were not possible, ending diversity jurisdiction would allow the federal judiciary to concentrate its reduced resources on federal questions that really matter.*  This is a “conservative” idea that intellectually honest legislators of all stripes could embrace.

Any takers?

RGK

*Why in the hell should I know the slightest thing about the comparative negligence law of Nebraska?

More on mythology and Standing Bear

cropped-newheader

Photo credit:  Part of a painting done by Zoey Wood-Salomon used as a banner by the Indigenous Law and Policy Center Blog.

For an interesting take on mythology and the Standing Bear and Elk cases, see Adrea Korthase’s May 11, 2013, post in “Turtle Talk,” the Indigenous Law and Policy Center Blog at the Michigan State University College of Law.  The author helpfully refers to Volume 4, part 4 of Seen & Heard (November 2,1904) published shortly after the beginning of the 20th century in Philadelphia by Louis N. Megargee.*   Entitled “The Suppression of the Indian,” the full essay can be found at pages 4753 through 4771.  Among other things, it provides fascinating insights about Tibbles.

Thanks to Turtle Talk and Adrea Korthase!

RGK

*The collection is edited by James Hoyt.  It is available as a free EBook.

Deconstructing the mythology of the Standing Bear case

Elmer Scipio Dundy is pictured.  He served from 1868-1896.  The photo is taken from the archives of the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska.

Judge Elmer Scipio Dundy is pictured. He served from 1868-1896. The photo is taken from the archives of the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska.

It t is fashionable among do-gooders to make myths about overcoming racism and federal judges who rule for the downtrodden and against “the man.”  Please don’t get me wrong.  Racism is real, it exists still and it is awful.  And, it is also true that there are courageous judges.  But, myths are unhelpful to an honest understanding of the federal trial courts.  And that brings to me to the subject of this post.

In United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook, 25 F. Cas. 695, 700-01 (C.C.D. Neb. 1879) (No. 14,891) the court issued a writ of habeas corpus in favor of an Indian and his companions.  The Standing Bear case has taken on a mythic status.  See, for example, Mary Kathryn Nagle, Standing Bear v. Crook: The Case For Equality Under Waax’s Law, 45 Creighton Law Review, 455, 456 (2012) (“To be sure, Judge Dundy’s decision in Standing Bear v. Crook is, doctrinally, the equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education.”)

Despite the fact that many, perhaps most, of the contemporary accounts of the trial came from those who were rabid partisans bent upon publicizing the Indian cause (like the editor of the local newspaper, Thomas Henry Tibbles*), those embellishments continue to be used without skepticism to reinforce the mythology that now fuels the legend of Standing Bear.  In truth, when Judge Elmer S. Dundy, one of my predecessors, decided Standing Bear, his decision was a narrow one.  The decision was not one of mythic proportion, but rather one of studied judicial minimalism.

Having provided this introduction, let’s start with a brief recitation of the facts.

The story is fairly well-known.  The Ponca tribe in Nebraska entered into a pact with the government exchanging their claim to land in Nebraska for reservation land in Oklahoma.  Some later claimed that the Indians thought they were promised land in Nebraska, but there is also countervailing evidence that the Ponca knew full well that the consequence of their agreement meant a move to Oklahoma.**

Once situated in Oklahoma, the Ponca found life hard.  Many in their tribe, including the son of Chief Standing Bear, died, probably from lack of food.  In turn, these hardships caused Standing Bear and a small band of Ponca to leave the Oklahoma reservation and head back to Nebraska.  They were intercepted on the Omaha Indian reservation in Nebraska.  The Indians were detained by Brigadier General George Crook and his men on orders from Washington.  Crook was instructed to return the Ponca to Oklahoma.

Crook was sympathetic to the plight of Standing Bear and his Poncas.  He sought out help for the Indians.  Thomas Henry Tibbles, an editor of the Omaha Daily Herald, took up the Poncas’ cause. Tibbles obtained the services of two skilled Nebraska lawyers, John L. Webster and Andrew J. Poppleton.  Poppleton was the chief attorney for the Union Pacific Railroad.  He was, as they say now, a “heavy hitter.”  Those highly regarded lawyers sought a writ of habeas corpus in the federal district court in Omaha.

There were two primary questions presented.  First, could the Indians use the habeas corpus statute as a jurisdictional hook to garner review of their detention?  Second, as opposed to threatening to take them back to Oklahoma, had General Crook violated federal law by failing to “immediately” present the Ponca to a court in the jurisdiction of the Omaha Indian Reservation where the Ponca had been found?***

As to the first question, Judge Dundy observed that the habeas corpus statute used the word “persons” and not “citizens.”****  Standing Bear, 25 F. Cas. at 697. Because it was obvious that Indians were “persons,”  the judge easily concluded that Indians could use the statute to challenge their confinement.

As to the second question,  the judge recognized that there was a specific federal law that required “every person” found unlawfully on an Indian reservation (such as the Omaha reservation) to be taken “immediately” to the “nearest . . . judicial district to be proceeded against in due course of law.”  Id. at 700.  Since the Ponca were “persons” found unlawfully on the Omaha Indian reservation (their presence was unlawful since they did not belong to the Omaha tribe), Crook had the right to arrest them.  Crook erred, however, by not “immediately” presenting them for potential prosecution in the Nebraska federal court.  As a consequence, Standing Bear was entitled to relief from the unlawful detention.

It is gross hyperbole to suggest that Standing Bear is to Indians as Brown v. Board of Education is to blacks.  In truth, Standing Bear was a cautious decision that made a little new law, but certainly nothing earth shattering.  For example, the Standing Bear decision was in fact supported by precedent. See, e.g., Ex Parte Dos Santos, 7 F. Cas. 949 (C.C.D. Va. 1835) (No. 4,016) (ordering the release of an alleged murderer from Portugal even though he was not a citizen of the United States because he could not lawfully be detained in this country).

As the Supreme Court later observed, by the time Standing Bear was decided, it had been the law for more than four decades in America that “any person, whether a citizen or not, unlawfully restrained of his liberty, [was] entitled to that [habeas corpus] writ.” Elk v. Wilkins, 112 U.S. 94, 108 (1884) (discussing Standing Bear and citing, among other cases, Ex Parte Dos Santos).*****

To sum up then, Standing Bear was a minor but not insignificant case.  For the first time, it allowed Indians access to the federal courts.  However, the mythology surrounding the decision is unfounded and should be stripped away.  Judge Dundy did what cautious yet concerned federal district judges have done for a long time.  He read the law for its plain meaning and then he issued a narrow decision accordingly.  That is plenty good enough.

RGK

*Tibbles in particular is viewed as a “questionable source[]” by trained legal historians.  See, e.g., Patrick G. Blythe, Book Review, Stephen Dando-Colins, Standing Bear is a Person: The True Story of A Native American’s Quest for Justice, 49 Am. J. Legal Hist. 462 (2007).  Parenthetically, Tibbles is the person who described Standing Bear’s “I am a man” speech and it is that description that is frequently quoted.  Intending no disrespect to the memory of Standing Bear, one wonders whether to trust Tibbles’ account.

**Although no site was actually selected, there is historical evidence that in 1878 eight Ponca chiefs, including Standing Bear, visited the Osage reservation in Oklahoma to select a site in anticipation of their move.

***There was also a third question about whether Indians could sever their ties to tribes (“expatriation) and thus avoid control of the government as “Indians.”  Judge Dundy, while believing they had that right, did not specifically determine whether Standing Bear and his group were in fact “expatriated.”  Id. at 699.  (It is important not to confuse “expatriation” with “citizenship” as both Judge Dundy and the Supreme Court would make clear just a few years after Standing Bear.)

****As a class, Indians did not become citizens until passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

*****A few short years after Standing Bear was decided, Judge Dundy himself made it clear that the reach of Standing Bear was very limited.  In Elk v. Wilkins, Judge Dundy, sitting with another judge as Circuit judges, denied an Indian’s claim that he was a “citizen” because he had left his tribe.  The Supreme Court affirmed.  The Court held that an Indian, born a member of one of the Indian tribes within the United States, which still exists and is recognized as a tribe by the government of the United States, who has voluntarily separated himself from his tribe and taken up his residence among the white citizens of a state, but who has not been naturalized or taxed or recognized as a citizen, either by the United States or by the state, is not a citizen of the United States, within the meaning of the 14th Amendment, which declares that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States, and of the state wherein they reside.”

%d bloggers like this: