Coleman v. Balkcom

Decision Date27 April 1981
Docket NumberNo. 80-5980,80-5980
Citation101 S.Ct. 2031,68 L.Ed.2d 334,451 U.S. 949
PartiesWayne Carl COLEMAN v. Charles R. BALKCOM, Warden
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 452 U.S. 955, 101 S.Ct. 3100.

On petition for writ of certiorari to the Superior Court of Tattnall County, Georgia.

The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.

Justice STEVENS, concurring.

The Court's management of its discretionary docket is a subject that merits re-examination from time to time in the light of changes that affect the business of the federal judiciary. See, e. g., Watt v. Alaska, 451 U.S. 259, 273, 101 S.Ct. 1673, 1681, 68 L.Ed.2d 80 (STEVENS, J., concurring), and Singleton v. Commissioner, 439 U.S. 940, 942-946, 99 S.Ct. 335, 337-339, 58 L.Ed.2d 335 (opinion of STEVENS, J.). Opinions dissenting from the denial of certiorari sometimes create the impression that we review fewer cases than we should; I hold the opposite view. Today Justice REHNQUIST advances the proposition, as I understand his dissenting opinion, that we should promptly grant certiorari and decide the merits of every capital case coming from the state courts in order to expedite the administration of the death penalty.

In my judgment, the Court wisely rejects this proposal. In the last 10 months, over 90 certiorari petitions have been filed in capital cases. If we were to hear even a substantial percentage of these cases on the merits, they would consume over half of this Court's argument calendar. Although the interest in protecting the constitutional rights of persons sentenced to death is properly characterized as a federal interest, the interest in imposing the death sentence is essentially a state interest. Because the persons on death row are concentrated in only a few States, because some States have no capital punishment at all, and because the range of capital offenses differs in different States, it is quite clear that all States do not share the same interest in accelerating the execution rate. This Court's primary function is to adjudicate federal questions. To make the primary mission of this Court the vindication of certain States' interests in carrying out the death penalty would be an improper allocation of the Court's limited resources.

Moreover, one may also question whether Justice REHNQUIST's proposal would accomplish its intended purpose. As I understand his proposal, it would preclude the federal district courts from granting writs of habeas corpus in any capital cases on any ground that had been presented to and rejected by this Court. Because this Court is not equipped to process all of these cases as expeditiously as the several district courts, it is most unlikely that this innovative proposal would dramatically accelerate the execution of the persons on death row.1

One of the causes of delay in the conclusion of litigation in capital cases has been the fact that the enactment of new state legislation after this Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346, generated a number of novel constitutional questions. Although those questions have not been difficult for three Members of the Court,2 other Justices have found a number of these questions sufficiently important and difficult to justify the delays associated with review in this Court. The principal delay—a matter of four years was the period between the entry of the stays in the Furman litigation in 1972, and the decisions in July 1976 in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859; Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242, 96 S.Ct. 2960, 49 L.Ed.2d 913, and Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262, 96 S.Ct. 2950, 49 L.Ed.2d 929, in which the constitutionality of the death penalty was ultimately sustained. Following that basic holding, the Court has also decided several other cases presenting substantial constitutional issues relating to capital punishment statutes; 3 presumably those issues will no longer detain the state or federal courts in their consideration of cases in which the death penalty has been imposed.4 One therefore should not assume that the delays of the past few years will necessarily be reflected in the future if the various state authorities act with all possible diligence.5 The deterrent value of any punishment is, of course, related to the promptness with which it is inflicted. In capital cases, however, the punishment is inflicted in two stages. Imprisonment follows immediately after conviction; but the execution normally does not take place until after the conclusion of post-trial proceedings in the trial court, direct and collateral review in the state judicial system, collateral review in the federal judicial system, and clemency review by the executive department of the State. However critical one may be of these protracted post-trial procedures, it seems inevitable that there must be a significant period of incarceration on death row during the interval between sentencing and execution. If the death sentence is ultimately set aside or its execution delayed for a prolonged period, the imprisonment during that period is nevertheless a significant form of punishment. Indeed, the deterrent value of incarceration during that period of uncertainty may well be comparable to the consequences of the ultimate step itself. In all events, what is at stake in this procedural debate is the length of that period of incarceration rather than the question whether the offender shall be severely punished.

How promptly a diligent prosecutor can complete all of the proceedings necessary to carry out a death sentence is still uncertain. Much of the delay associated with past litigation should not reoccur in cases that merely raise issues that have now been resolved. As is true of all other types of litigation as well, however, inevitably new issues arise that will be sufficiently important and difficult to require deliberation before they are fully resolved. This Court should endeavor to conclude capital cases—like all other litigation—as promptly as possible. We must, however, also be as sure as possible that novel procedural shortcuts have not permitted error of a constitutional magnitude to occur. For after all, death cases are indeed different in kind from all other litigation. The penalty, once imposed, is irrevocable. In balance, therefore, I think the Court wisely declines to select this group of cases in which to experiment with accelerated procedures. Accordingly, I concur in the order denying certiorari.

Justice MARSHALL, with whom Justice BRENNAN joins, dissenting.

Petitioner was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. After exhausting his direct appeals, petitioner filed this action in the Superior Court of Tattnall County, Ga., seeking a writ of habeas corpus. One of petitioner's claims was that prejudicial publicity had created an atmosphere in which a fair trial was impossible. Petitioner's counsel asserted in an affidavit that the jurors in his original trial, if called as witnesses, would "testify as to the widespread discussion of the [offense] in Seminole County . . . and to the fact that they, as jurors, were affected in their statutory decision-making process by the adverse pre-trial publicity." The affidavit further alleged that the county jury commissioners, members of the jury panels, and numerous reporters and expert witnesses would offer testimony to similar effect. In order to prove these allegations, petitioner sought compulsory process to require the witnesses to testify.

At that point, petitioner's efforts were thwarted by Ga.Code § 38-801(e) (1978). Although that statute has since been amended,1 at the time of petitioner's habeas hearing, it provided that subpoenas in habeas cases could be served only in the county in which the hearing was held or within 150 miles of that county. None of the witnesses petitioner wished to summon lived so close. As one would expect, most of them lived in or near Seminole County, where the offense was committed. Petitioner was further constrained by the provisions of Ga.Code § 50-127 (1978) to file his habeas petition in the county where he was incarcerated.2 In sum, only the State's procedural requirement threatened to prevent petitioner from calling the witnesses who he alleged would testify in support of his claim. Consequently, petitioner asked the trial court to declare § 38-801(e) unconstitutional and to permit him to perfect service anywhere in the State. The trial court sustained the statute and denied the petition for habeas corpus on the merits. The Georgia Supreme Court declined to grant leave to appeal. Because the availability of compulsory process to an individual challenging his death penalty raises important questions under the Due Process Clause, I would grant the petition for certiorari.3

A habeas corpus proceeding is, of course, civil rather than criminal in nature, and consequently the ordinary Sixth Amendment guarantee of compulsory process, which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment,4 does not apply. Nevertheless, when the death penalty is in issue, the Constitution may impose unusual limitations on the States. As we emphasized just last Term in Beck v. Alabama 447 U.S. 625, 637, 100 S.Ct. 2382, 2389, 65 L.Ed.2d 392 (1980), "there is a significant constitutional difference between the death penalty and lesser punishments." If an individual is imprisoned for an offense he did not commit, the error can to some extent be rectified. But if he is executed, the wrong that has been done can never be corrected. That is just one reason that I, of course, adhere to my view that the State may never put an individual to death without imposing a cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Yet surely those among my Brethren who believe that there are circumstances in which the State may legitimately impose this ultimate sanction would not want...

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    ...the Constitution ... the existence of the death penalty in this country is virtually an illusion." Coleman v. Balkcom, 451 U.S. 949, 957-58, 101 S.Ct. 2031, 2994, 68 L.Ed.2d 334 (1981) (Rehnquist, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari). The written requested charge is erroneous as a matt......
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