558 U.S. 53 (2009), 08-992, Beard v. Kindler

Docket Nº:08-992.
Citation:558 U.S. 53, 130 S.Ct. 612, 175 L.Ed.2d 417, 78 U.S.L.W. 4005
Opinion Judge:ROBERTS, CHIEF JUSTICE
Party Name:Jeffrey A. BEARD, Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, et al., Petitioners, v. Joseph J. KINDLER.
Attorney:Ronald Eisenberg, Philadelphia, PA, for Petitioners. Matthew C. Lawry, Philadelphia, PA, for Respondent. Ronald Eisenberg, Deputy District Attorney, Thomas W. Dolgenos, Chief, Federal Litigation, Arnold Gordon, 1st Asst. District Attorney, Lynne Abraham, District Attorney, Philadelphia, PA, for P...
Judge Panel:Roberts, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except Alito, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case. Kennedy, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Thomas, J., joined. Justice Alito took no part in the consideration or decision...
Case Date:December 08, 2009
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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558 U.S. 53 (2009)

130 S.Ct. 612, 175 L.Ed.2d 417, 78 U.S.L.W. 4005

Jeffrey A. BEARD, Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, et al., Petitioners,

v.

Joseph J. KINDLER.

No. 08-992.

United States Supreme Court

December 8, 2009

Argued November 2, 2009

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT

[417 L.Ed.2d 419] [130 S.Ct. 613] SYLLABUS [*]

Respondent Kindler was convicted of capital murder in Pennsylvania state court, and the jury recommended a death sentence. Kindler filed postverdict motions challenging his conviction and sentence, but before the trial court could consider the motions or the jury's death recommendation, Kindler escaped and fled to Canada. The state trial court subsequently dismissed Kindler's postverdict motions because of his escape. Canadian authorities ultimately captured Kindler and held him in jail pending extradition. But before Kindler could be transferred from Canadian custody, he escaped again, this time remaining at large for more than two years. He was eventually recaptured and transferred to the United States. Once back in this country, Kindler sought to reinstate his postverdict motions, but the trial court denied relief, holding that the judge who had dismissed the motions had not abused his discretion under Pennsylvania's fugitive forfeiture law. Kindler argued on direct appeal that the trial court erred in declining to address the merits of his postverdict motions, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. Kindler's claims were rejected on state habeas, and he sought federal habeas relief. Under the adequate state ground doctrine, a federal habeas court will not review a claim rejected by a state court "if the decision of [the state] court rests on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment." Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729, 111 S.Ct. 2546, 115 L.Ed.2d 640. The District Court nonetheless granted Kindler's habeas petition, determining that the state fugitive forfeiture rule did not provide an adequate basis to bar federal review of Kindler's habeas claims. The Third Circuit affirmed, and the Commonwealth petitioned for certiorari. It argued that the Third Circuit had held the state fugitive forfeiture rule automatically inadequate because the [417 L.Ed.2d 420] state courts had discretion in applying it, and the Commonwealth sought review of that holding. The Court granted that petition.

[130 S.Ct. 614]Held:

A state procedural rule is not automatically "inadequate" under the adequate state ground doctrine—and therefore unenforceable on federal habeas review—because the state rule is discretionary rather than mandatory. The question whether a state procedural ruling is adequate is itself a question of federal law. Lee v. Kemna, 534 U.S. 362, 375, 122 S.Ct. 877, 151 L.Ed.2d 820. This

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Court has framed the adequacy inquiry by asking whether the state rule was "firmly established and regularly followed." Id., at 376, 122 S.Ct. 877, 151 L.Ed.2d 820. A discretionary state procedural rule can serve as an adequate ground to bar federal habeas review even if the appropriate exercise of discretion may permit consideration of a federal claim in some cases but not others. A contrary holding would pose an unnecessary dilemma for the States: They could preserve flexibility by granting courts discretion to excuse procedural errors, but only at the cost of undermining the finality of state-court judgments. Or States could preserve the finality of their judgments by withholding such discretion, but only at the cost of precluding any flexibility in applying the rules. If forced to choose, many States would opt for mandatory rules to avoid the high costs of plenary federal review. That would be unfortunate in many cases, as discretionary rules are often desirable. The federal system, for example, often grants the trial judge broad discretion when his ringside perspective at the main event offers him a comparative advantage in decisionmaking. The States have followed suit. Given the federalism and comity concerns motivating the adequate state ground doctrine in the habeas context, see Coleman, supra, at 730, 111 S.Ct. 2546, 115 L.Ed.2d 640, this Court should not disregard discretionary state procedural rules that are in place in nearly every State and are substantially similar to those given full force in federal courts. Cf. Francis v. Henderson, 425 U.S. 536, 541-542, 96 S.Ct. 1708, 48 L.Ed.2d 149. Pp. 617- 619. 60-63, 175 L.Ed.2d, at 424-425.

542 F. 3d 70, vacated and remanded.

Ronald Eisenberg, Philadelphia, PA, for Petitioners.

Matthew C. Lawry, Philadelphia, PA, for Respondent.

Ronald Eisenberg, Deputy District Attorney, Thomas W. Dolgenos, Chief, Federal Litigation, Arnold Gordon, 1st Asst. District Attorney, Lynne Abraham, District Attorney, Philadelphia, PA, for Petitioners.

Leigh Skipper, Matthew C. Lawry, Maria K. Pulzetti, Jennifer L. Givens, Billy H. Nolas, Philadelphia, PA, for Respondent.

Roberts, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except Alito, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case. Kennedy, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Thomas, J., joined.

OPINION

ROBERTS, CHIEF JUSTICE.

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A federal habeas court will not review a claim rejected by a state court "if the decision of [the state] court rests on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment." Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729, 111 S.Ct. 2546, 115 L.Ed.2d 640 (1991). We granted certiorari to decide the following question: "Is a [130 S.Ct. 615] state procedural rule automatically 'inadequate' under the adequate-state-grounds doctrine—and therefore unenforceable on federal habeas corpus review—because the state rule is discretionary rather than mandatory?" Pet. for Cert. i. Petitioners argue the correct answer is "no." At oral argument, respondent—consistent with [417 L.Ed.2d 421] his position below—expressly agreed. We do too, and accordingly vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

I

In 1982, Joseph Kindler, along with Scott Shaw and David Bernstein, burglarized a music store in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Police stopped the getaway car and arrested Shaw and Bernstein. In a harbinger of things to come, Kindler escaped. Commonwealth v. Kindler, 536 Pa. 228, 236, 639 A.2d 1, 5, cert, denied, 513 U.S. 933, 115 S.Ct. 327, 130 L.Ed.2d 287 (1994).

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Police later arrested Kindler and charged him with burglary. He was released on bail. Bernstein agreed to testify against Kindler, but Kindler had other plans. At about 2:30 a.m. on July 25, 1982, Kindler and Shaw attacked Bernstein outside his apartment. Kindler beat Bernstein with a baseball bat approximately 20 times, and Shaw shocked Bernstein 5 times with an electric prod. Bernstein at that point was still alive but unable to move, and Kindler and Shaw dragged their victim to their nearby car, loaded him in the trunk, and drove to the Delaware River. At the river, Kindler tied a cinder block around Bernstein's neck and dumped him in the water. A forensic examiner later determined that Bernstein died of drowning and massive head injuries. 536 Pa., at 236–239, 639 A.2d, at 5–6.

Kindler was brought to trial and convicted of capital murder. The jury recommended a death sentence, and Kindler filed postverdict motions. Id., at 230–231, 639 A.2d, at 2.

But on September 19, 1984, before the trial court could consider the motions or the jury's death recommendation, Kindler escaped. Ibid. In an organized effort to saw through the external prison bars with smuggled tools, Kindler broke out of the maximum-security wing of the prison and headed for Canada. See Commonwealth v. Kindler, 554 Pa. 513, 517–518, and n. 4, 722 A.2d 143, 145, and n. 4 (1998).

Kindler remained a fugitive in Canada until April 26, 1985, when he was arrested in Quebec for separate burglary offenses. The United States sought Kindler's return, but an extradition treaty allowed Canada to refuse to hand over anyone likely to face execution. See Kindler v. Canada (Minister of Justice), [1991] 2 S. C. R. 779, 84 D.L.R. (4th) 438.

Kindler turned into something of a local celebrity. He even appeared on Canadian television, explaining, among other things, how he had escaped and why he chose Canada: "I knew there was no death penalty here." CTV National News: Joseph Kindler's Fate Unresolved (Canadian television

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broadcast Sept. 22, 1985) (videos available in Clerk of Court's case file). Canadian authorities ultimately acquiesced to overtures from the United States and agreed to extradite Kindler. Kindler, supra, 536 Pa., at 231, 639 A.2d, at 2.

But before Kindler could be transferred from Canadian custody, he escaped again. On the night of October 23, 1986, Kindler broke through a skylight on the 13th floor of the jail (his fellow inmates had hoisted him up to the skylight 15 feet above the floor) and escaped to the roof, where he stood 175 feet above ground. Armed with 13 stories' worth of bedsheets tied together, Kindler safely rappelled down the side of the jail. (A fellow escapee was not as lucky—the sheets ripped on his way down, [130 S.Ct. 616]causing [417 L.Ed.2d 422] him to fall 50 feet to his death.) Kindler, 554 Pa., at 517-519, 722 A.2d, at 145.

This time, Kindler remained on the lam for more than two years, until he was featured on the popular television show, "America's Most Wanted." Characterizing Kindler as "an above average criminal" and "a chess player who understands when to make his move," the show asked viewers for information to help capture him. America's Most Wanted,...

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