580 F.3d 403 (6th Cir. 2009), 08-1571, Ruelas v. Wolfenbarger

Docket Nº:08-1571.
Citation:580 F.3d 403
Opinion Judge:BOYCE F. MARTIN, JR., Circuit Judge.
Party Name:John David RUELAS, Petitioner-Appellee, v. Hugh WOLFENBARGER, Respondent-Appellant.
Attorney:Jerrold E. Schrotenboer, Jackson County Prosecutor's Office, Jackson, Michigan, for Appellant. Nathan S. Mammen, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellee. Jerrold E. Schrotenboer, Jackson County Prosecutor's Office, Jackson, Michigan, for Appellant. Nathan S. Mammen, Charles A. Fern
Judge Panel:Before MARTIN and KETHLEDGE, Circuit Judges; WATSON, District Judge. [*]
Case Date:September 08, 2009
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 403

580 F.3d 403 (6th Cir. 2009)

John David RUELAS, Petitioner-Appellee,

v.

Hugh WOLFENBARGER, Respondent-Appellant.

No. 08-1571.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

September 8, 2009

Argued: June 11, 2009.

Page 404

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 405

ARGUED:

Jerrold E. Schrotenboer, Jackson County Prosecutor's Office, Jackson, Michigan, for Appellant.

Nathan S. Mammen, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

Jerrold E. Schrotenboer, Jackson County Prosecutor's Office, Jackson, Michigan, for Appellant.

Nathan S. Mammen, Charles A. Fernández, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

Before MARTIN and KETHLEDGE, Circuit Judges; WATSON, District Judge. [*]

OPINION

BOYCE F. MARTIN, JR., Circuit Judge.

John David Ruelas pleaded guilty to " open murder" for causing his mother's death. At his " degree hearing," where a judge was to find the proper level of criminal homicide for Ruelas based on his plea, he was found guilty of second-degree murder. Ruelas has now filed a petition for a writ of federal habeas corpus, contending

Page 406

that his plea was not made knowingly or voluntarily and was thus unconstitutional. The district court agreed, and granted him a conditional writ of habeas corpus. Because we believe that even if his plea was involuntary any constitutional error was harmless, we REVERSE.

I.

In 2002, Ruelas, then thirty-eight years old, moved back into his mother's house after he and his wife divorced. Ruelas and his mother frequently argued, and in January of that year, he referred to his ex-wife as a " bitch." His mother scolded him, and he gave her " a couple of strikings." J.A. 217. As a result, his mother, seventy-six years old, died.

Ruelas was arrested and, in July 2002, pleaded guilty to " open murder" in exchange for the dismissal of a second felony offender charge. In Michigan, " open murder" pleas permit a judge to determine, based on the plea agreement, what level of criminal homicide is appropriate. The plea agreement between Ruelas and the prosecutor stated that the circuit court would consider first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter. First-degree murder carried a possible sentence of up to life with no parole; second was life with the opportunity for parole; manslaughter was capped at fifteen years in jail. The circuit court, after ruling out first-degree, found Ruelas guilty of second-degree murder. Ruelas was sentenced to 250 months to 40 years in prison with the possibility of parole.

Ruelas then began a series of challenges to his guilty plea and conviction. These culminated in an attempt to withdraw his plea. The trial court construed his motion to withdraw his plea as a motion for relief from judgment and denied it. Ruelas argued first that the circuit court never mentioned manslaughter when it found him guilty of second-degree murder, and, second, that at the time Ruelas pleaded to and was found guilty of second-degree murder, manslaughter could not have been considered during an " open murder" hearing under Michigan law. Ruelas argued that this rendered his plea involuntary because he thought he had a shot of being found guilty of merely manslaughter.

The state courts denied this claim, finding that his plea was not involuntary and, even if it was, any such error was " harmless." Ruelas then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court, alleging (among other things), that his plea was unknowing and involuntary and that his guilty plea must be vacated as a result. Ruelas does not argue that someone else killed his mother; he argues that the highest charge sustainable against him is manslaughter. Br. of Petitioner/Appellee at 12. The district court rejected most of Ruelas's arguments but agreed that his guilty plea was improper and further that this defect had a substantial and injurious effect on his conviction. The district court granted the writ because it concluded that Ruelas was likely to have pleaded innocent if he had known he was ineligible for manslaughter, and therefore he was entitled to habeas relief. Michigan appeals.

II.

Two minor points must be cleared up before addressing the merits. First, Michigan argues that, though Ruelas otherwise exhausted his state remedies before filing his habeas petition, we should nevertheless dismiss his claim as unexhausted because there is a chance that, were he to file a new motion in state court, Michigan's courts might change the law and allow his petition to proceed. Specifically, Michigan argues that, were we to dismiss Ruelas's case, the Michigan courts might find the Supreme Court's decision in

Page 407

Castro v. United States, 540 U.S. 375, 124 S.Ct. 786, 157 L.Ed.2d 778 (2003) persuasive. In Castro, the Court held that if a court construes a pro se petitioner's motion to have been asserted under a ground different than the one stated, the re-styled motion only counts as a " first" petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, if the pro se petitioner was warned that the re-styled motion would have preclusive effect. Id. at 383-84, 124 S.Ct. 786. It is a sound rule.

But no Michigan court has ever cited Castro, and, being grounded in the Court's supervisory power over lower federal courts, it is not directly binding on them. Id. at 382-84, 124 S.Ct. 786. Michigan's Attorney General argues, nevertheless, that Michigan's courts will surely see Castro's wisdom, and thus this Court should dismiss Ruelas's claim and give them the opportunity to see if they want to adopt the rule for themselves. The AG further assures us that, if we took this action, he would argue for, not against, adoption of the Castro rule, even though that would be against the state's interests at that point. Suffice to say that we cannot accept that argument. It is wholly speculative whether Michigan would adopt the Castro rule, as it is under no compulsion to do so. And we do not even know if Ruelas's claim would properly fit within it-Ruelas's motion to withdraw was re-styled as a motion for relief from judgment, but Michigan would have to delineate the contours of its own Castro rule based on Michigan procedure, of which this Court cannot claim any expertise. Moreover, dismissing Ruelas's case for this reason would suggest to Michigan's courts that they must adopt the Castro rule-that we were strong-arming them into adopting it because we, as federal judges, think it is a good idea. Yet that is for Michigan to decide. The state courts did not adopt the rule the first time Ruelas filed for relief, and there is little reason for us to think they have changed their minds. In any event, even if we take the Attorney General's offer as one made in good faith, it is not to our knowledge enforceable, and it is not for us to force that office's hand in a later stage of litigation, wholly apart from federal court. It is best for us to stay out of that speculative game. We hold that Ruelas exhausted his state court remedies, and that this appeal is properly before us.

Second, after the district court granted judgment in favor of Ruelas on his involuntary guilty plea claim, Michigan filed a motion for relief from judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). Michigan then appealed this case to this Court two days later, and then re-filed its 60(b) motion with the district court. That motion sought an evidentiary hearing into whether Ruelas's plea was voluntary, and the state submitted affidavits from the trial prosecutor and defense counsel. The district court has not yet acted on this 60(b) motion.

In its brief in this case, Michigan improperly relies on evidence it submitted when it filed its 60(b) motion. This evidence is not properly before us. First, the district court correctly did not rule on the 60(b) motion while this appeal remained pending, as it lost jurisdiction over it: " After an appeal of a trial court's final judgment has been perfected by the filing of a notice of appeal, the trial court no longer has jurisdiction to grant a Rule 60(b) motion." Pickens v. Howes, 549 F.3d 377, 381 (6th Cir.2008). The district was free, however, to " indicate that it would grant the motion," which would allow the appellant to " make a motion in...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP