Supreme Court of the United States
Cruz v. Arizona—(J. Sotomayor; SCOTUS; 2/22/23).
This is not a personal injury case; it’s a criminal case. Nevertheless, it deserves a quick mention because a rare coalition of the three liberal justices joined by C.J. Roberts and J. Kavanaugh came together to grant relief to a convicted murderer on death row and also because the Supreme Court invoked and applied a rare exception to the general rule that federal courts cannot intervene under federal question jurisdiction when there is an independent state-law ground upon which to resolve a case. This exception could prove useful in civil cases.
The facts are simple: Cruz was denied his right under Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154 (1994), to inform the jury at his trial that if they opted not to impose the death penalty, he would receive a life sentence without possibility of parole. The rationale behind this strategy is that the jurors may not have impose death if they are assured that a murderer would never be released.
Arizona courts persisted in interpreting Simmons as not applicable in their state until the Supreme Court intervened in Lynch v. Arizona, 578 U.S. 613 (2016).
Cruz applied for postconviction relief under Lynch per an Arizona rule that allows a successive or untimely postconviction motion if there has been a “significant change” in the law that, if applicable, would overturn the defendant’s judgment or sentence. The Arizona court denied relief after concluding that Lynch was not a significant change in the law because it was only a change to how the law was applied. Simmons existed at the time of Cruz’s trial, so the Arizona Supreme Court said it was not “new” even though Arizona courts mistakenly did not apply it until Lynch.
Normally, the Arizona courts’ interpretation of its own rule of procedure would preclude a federal court from taking jurisdiction because it would be viewed as an adequate and independent state law ground for the judgment. This 5/4 majority held, however, that the independent state ground in this case was not “adequate” because “an unforeseeable and unsupported state-court decision on a question of state procedure does not constitute an adequate ground to preclude” the Supreme Court’s review of a federal question. That rare exception dates back over a century.
Arizona courts had always held that overturning precedent or any clear break from the past constituted a change in the law sufficient to satisfy their procedural rule for postconviction relief. Arizona’s decision in Cruz’s case departed from established Arizona law for when the postconviction motion 3 should have been permitted in light of the 180 degree turn under Lynch. Lynch reversed previously binding Arizona Supreme Court precedent holding that Simmons did not apply in Arizona. The Arizona Supreme Court was not free to foreclose federal review by adopting a “‘novel and unforeseeable’” approach to Rule 32.1(g) that lacks “fair or substantial support in prior state law.”
JUSTICE BARRETT DISSENTED, with JUSTICES THOMAS, ALITO, AND GORSUCH JOINING HER. The dissent actually agrees that the basis for finding an independent state ground to be inadequate was a well-established exception to the general rule precluding review of state-law questions, but the exception can only be applied where the state court’s decision reveals hostility to federal rights, and the dissenters did not agree that that was what was going on here even though Cruz’s right under Simmons was denied.
Terry P. Roberts
Director of Appellate Practice Fischer Redavid PLLC