Accuracy v. Finality: The Implications of Habeas Rights Based on AEDPA Interpretations

BACKGROUND

With the release of the film Just Mercy, the debate over balancing the prevention of wrongful convictions against the assurance of finality in serious criminal matters has once again come into the spotlight. This dispute is not only receiving national attention in pop culture, but is also making headlines in the judicial field with the emergence of a new circuit split.

A habeas petition is a method invoked by prisoners seeking an early release by challenging the legitimacy of their detention. In 1996, the ability to file habeas petitions was limited with the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”). Under AEDPA, a prisoner has just one opportunity to file a motion to vacate the earlier sentence. A second opportunity is permitted only when the Supreme Court adopts a new and favorable rule of constitutional law. Prisoners are also restricted to just one habeas petition, unless they can demonstrate that AEDPA’s remedy is “inadequate or ineffective.”

THE ISSUE

Can the AEDPA remedy be considered inadequate or ineffective, thereby circumventing the single habeas restriction, when a new rule of statutory construction is adopted by a circuit court?

THE SPLIT

In Hueso v. Barnhart (2020), the Sixth Circuit split from the Fourth Circuit, interpreting AEDPA to increase restrictions on habeas rights. Hueso was convicted of drug trafficking in Alaska. He was initially sentenced to 10 years in prison; however, the term was doubled under a federal sentencing law. The year after his conviction, the Supreme Court rejected the interpretation permitting doubling. At the time, Hueso’s counsel had already filed a Motion to Vacate challenging evidence, which was rejected. Counsel then filed a habeas petition based on the Supreme Court ruling. The court denied the petition based on Sixth Circuit precedent that barred habeas cases from entertaining challenges based on sentencing. However, in 2016, the Sixth Circuit overturned its previous holding, thereby permitting sentencing-based habeas petitions.

As a result, Hueso’s counsel filed another habeas petition, but this time it was rejected under AEDPA. Hueso appealed to the Sixth Circuit, arguing that he should be permitted to file a second habeas under AEDPA because the AEDPA remedy was inadequate and ineffective. The Sixth Circuit denied the appeal on two bases. First, the Sixth Circuit reasoned that the Supreme Court ruling rejecting double sentencing could not be introduced in a subsequent challenge as the decision was made while Hueso’s first Motion to Vacate was pending. The court reasoned that the decision was available at the time of the challenge and, therefore, the failure to mention it barred a second attempt. Second, the Sixth Circuit held that the second habeas petition was correctly denied because the basis of the petition centered on a circuit court decision to permit sentencing-based habeas petitions. The Sixth Circuit rationalized that this decision was not constitutional law, as required under AEDPA, and thus could not be a basis for seeking to file subsequent petitions.

The Sixth Circuit’s reasoning diverged from the Fourth Circuit’s prior interpretation in United States v. Wheeler (2018). Wheeler was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm. Wheeler entered into a plea deal, agreeing to an enhanced sentence with a mandatory minimum of 120 months. The next year, Wheeler’s counsel filed a Motion to Vacate, citing both inefficient counsel and the fact that the conviction did not qualify for an enhanced sentence. The Motion was denied based on Fourth Circuit precedent allowing a maximum aggravated sentence to be imposed. Wheeler’s counsel sought to appeal by filing a certificate of appealability. While the appeal was pending, the previous precedent relied upon was overturned by the Fourth Circuit with a finding that a district court could only consider the maximum sentence that the particular defendant could receive in enhanced sentence matters. However, Wheeler’s appeal was still denied based on the reasoning that the new decision could not be applied retroactively.

Wheeler’s counsel subsequently filed a habeas petition, arguing that the AEDPA remedy was inadequate and ineffective. In this case, the Fourth Circuit upheld the inadequacy on appeal. The court reasoned:

“[W]e conclude that [AEDPA] is inadequate and ineffective to test the legality of a sentence when: (1) at the time of sentencing, settled law of this circuit or the Supreme Court established the legality of the sentence; subsequent to the prisoner’s direct appeal and first … motion, the aforementioned settled substantive law changed and was deemed to apply retroactively on collateral review; (3) the prisoner is unable to meet the gatekeeping requirements … for second or successive motions; and (4) due to this retroactive change, the sentence now presents an error sufficiently grave to be deemed a fundamental defect.”

LOOKING FORWARD

Following the Wheeler decision, the Solicitor General, on behalf of the United States, filed a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. The petition was denied in March 2019, before the split emerged. The developing split has the potential for unfortunate consequences for prisoners based solely on the region they are imprisoned in. The split will inevitably result in disparate results concerning a prisoner’s rights to seek relief and retrial in the case of wrongful convictions. In the Sixth Circuit, Judge Karen Nelson Moore acknowledged the disparity in her dissent, pointing out that Hueso would “almost certainly prevail” had he attacked his sentence the first time, and noting that, as a result of the majority interpretation, Hueso would be spending another decade incarcerated.

To Be Eligible or Ineligible: The Implications of Service Animals When Donating Plasma

Background

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination based on disability. All places of public accommodations are subject to the ADA, and 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7)(F) lists the service-based entities that are considered public accommodations for purposes of the Act, including a catch-all of “other service establishments.” The list includes: “a laundromat, dry-cleaner, bank, barber shop, beauty shop, travel service, shoe repair service, funeral parlor, gas station, office of an accountant or lawyer, pharmacy, insurance office, professional office of a health care provider, hospital, or other service establishment.”

Plasma centers collect donated plasma from humans to be used in medical therapy and research. People who give plasma are paid in return for their donation. Many plasma centers have policies barring ineligible donors, basing eligibility on things like medical history, prescribed medication, and the recency of a new tattoo or piercing, or other “risky” activities. In recent years, one specific plasma center – CSL Plasma, Inc. – has become subject to controversy for its safety policy, which bars all who use service animals for anxiety from eligibility.

The Issue

Are plasma centers considered “service establishments” and therefore subject to the ADA’s prohibition on discrimination for public accommodations?

The Split

The Fifth Circuit has split from the Third and Tenth Circuits on the issue of whether plasma centers are considered service establishments. All three circuits considered the dictionary definitions of the words “service” and “establishment,” referencing Webster’s Third International Dictionary. According to the dictionary, “service” means “conduct or performance that assists or benefits someone or something” and “establishment” means a “place of business.” The issue of whether a plasma center is a place of business is not contested.

 In Silguero v. CSL Plasma, Inc (2018), the Fifth Circuit held that plasma centers are not service establishments, and therefore not subject to the ADA’s prohibition on discrimination. The court first looked at the dictionary definition and reasoned that donors receive no detectable benefit from the act of donation. As Webster’s definition considers a service to be a benefit received, the Fifth Circuit held that the plasma collection cannot be considered a “service.”

In addition, the Fifth Circuit implemented ejusdem generis, a canon of statutory interpretation that interprets a general term in a statute by looking to the preceding examples. The court found that the examples prior to “service establishment,” which included hospitals, barbershops, lawyers, and gas stations among the many, all offered a public a service in exchange for monetary compensation, whereas plasma centers pay the public for donations. As plasma centers do not receive money from the public, and instead give money to the public, the Fifth Circuit further confirmed its holding that plasma centers are not service establishments that must follow the ADA.

The Tenth Circuit disagreed with this interpretation in Levorsen v. Octapharma Plasma, Inc. (2016) and found plasma centers to be service establishments. Instead, the Tenth Circuit reasoned that the “service” requirement was fulfilled as the donors who provided plasma for medical use were indeed “benefited” by the monetary compensation they received in exchange, whether the benefit was altruistic or pecuniary gain.

The Third Circuit agreed with the Tenth and expanded its reasoning in Matheis v. CSL Plasma, Inc (2019). The Third Circuit focused its analysis on the benefit aspect, affirming that the receipt of money is a clear benefit to the donor. Moreover, the Third Circuit diverged even further from the Fifth Circuit, countering the assertion that a public service must involve the receipt of compensation from customers, stating that this emphasis on the direction of compensation is “unhelpful.”

To support this argument, the Third Circuit referenced the fact that § 12181(7)(F) includes “bank” as a service entity. The Third Circuit argued this inclusion made it clear that the Fifth Circuit’s narrow reading was flawed, as customers of banks receive compensation for using the bank’s services. In regard to plasma centers, the Third Circuit held that these facilities “[offer] a service to the public, the extracting of plasma for money, with the plasma then used by the center in its business of supplying a vital product to healthcare providers. That both the center and members of the public derive economic value from the center’s provision and public’s use of a commercial service does not divorce the center from the other listed examples in § 12181(7)(F).”

Accordingly, the Third Circuit ruled that plasma centers were subject to the ADA. The Third Circuit went on to hold that CSL’s service animal policy was not a valid safety rule as its reasoning was speculative and generalized “widely about individuals who use service animals, all of whom CSL apparently views as people with ‘severe anxiety,’” rather than based on medical or scientific evidence.

Looking Forward

The circuit split on the matter of “service establishments” is troubling. Until this split is reconciled, it is possible that other establishments could argue exemption from discrimination on the basis of disability due to the narrow reading of “service” in the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning. It is important to ensure that establishments are not making safety assessments based on generalizations or stereotypes surrounding disability, and that service is not denied to owners of canine caregivers or other service animals.