By Mridula Raman
June 24, 2022
at 9:20 a.m.
The Supreme Court of Shoop vs. Twyford continued its sustained assault on prisoners’ efforts to challenge their convictions and sentences in state court in federal court. In the Tuesday Decision 5-4judges have limited the ability of federal courts to use the All Writs Act to order states to transport prisoners, even when such transport might help prisoners investigate the unconstitutionality of their convictions. While the court’s decision clearly affects inmates seeking relief in federal court, it may also affect the operation of federal courts in various contexts.
As a backdrop, the federal district court in that case relied on the All Writs Act to order Ohio prison warden Tim Shoop to transport state death row inmate Raymond Twyford in a medical facility for neuroimaging. Twyford sought information that could support his habeas corpus proceedings, that is, his challenge to his conviction in state court and his death sentence. He pointed to the presence of bullet fragments lodged in his head from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, among other circumstances, to justify the imagery. The director immediately appealed the transportation order to the district court, and the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld. The Supreme Court reviewed the case to determine if and when federal courts can use the All Writs Act in habeas corpus proceedings.
The Supreme Court quashed, finding that Twyford had failed to explain how the federal district court could consider the evidence Twyford hoped to develop. Chief Justice John Roberts based his opinion on the text of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Law, which governs habeas proceedings in federal court, and the text of the All Writs Act, which the district court relied on in making its conveyance order. Under the AEDPA, a federal court may admit new evidence that a detainee failed to develop in prior proceedings in state court only in certain limited circumstances, such as when such evidence could not have been discovered before. If the prisoner cannot meet the strict requirements of the AEDPA, the federal court may disregard the prisoner’s new evidence.
Roberts further noted that the All Writs Act authorizes federal habeas courts to issue only writs “necessary or proper to assist” in resolving habeas proceedings. These commands must be AEDPA compliant. An order that “allows a prisoner to fish out unusable evidence” — evidence that a federal court cannot review because of the AEDPA — is not “necessary or appropriate to assist” a habeas and is therefore not authorized under the All Writs Act. Here, Twyford did not explain how his neuroimaging results might be admissible under the AEDPA, and, according to Roberts, “it’s hard to see how they might be.” Because Twyford had failed to make the required demonstration, the district court could not rely on the All Writs Act to order the director to transport Twyford for neuroimaging.
Two other points are worth mentioning: First, after ruling this particular transportation order inadmissible, the court declined to determine whether the All Writs Act could ever authorize transportation orders for medical tests. Second, the central point of the argument — the question of jurisdiction — deserved only a footnote in the opinion. Although mid-trial orders are generally not appealable, the court held that transportation orders under the All Writs Act could be appealed immediately. In so concluding, Roberts noted that the transportation orders “resolve an important question of state sovereignty conceptually distinct from the merits of the prisoner’s claims”.
The four dissenting justices focused on jurisdiction. Judge Stephen Breyer, joined by Judges Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, concluded that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the director’s appeal and would not have reached the All Writs Act issues. According to Breyer, nothing in the transport order deserved special treatment. There was no compelling reason to allow such an order — effectively, a standard discovery order — to be appealed immediately. In addition, the disadvantages of allowing mid-trial appeal (for example, delaying litigation, interfering with the ability of federal district courts to manage their cases, and requiring appellate courts to prematurely consider issues related to merits) outweighed the benefits. Judge Neil Gorsuch, who has generally sought to reduce availability federal habeas appeal, also wrote in his dissent that the court had no jurisdiction over the interim appeal. He reportedly dismissed the case without commenting at all.
While the transportation orders may seem relatively inconsequential, the decision reflects a push to thwart state prisoners trying to develop and present new evidence in federal court. The court in Shoop vs. Twyford relied heavily on its recent and highly publicized decision Shinn vs. Martinez Ramirez, which also cited AEDPA for preventing prisoners seeking federal habeas relief from presenting new evidence – even when all of their state court attorneys who might have developed the evidence earlier had acted incompetently. In Martinez Ramirez, the court rejected Barry Jones’ efforts to have the federal courts consider evidence of his innocence, although Jones faces execution. And because of Tuesday’s decision, Twyford likely won’t be able to present evidence in federal court regarding the bullet fragments in his skull and their effect on his cognitive function and behavior. These decisions, among others in this area and in recent termsseem designed to hollow out the brief habeas corpus for state prisoners.
The impact of the decision can be felt not only by state prisoners, but also by federal courts. First, the notice forces federal courts to confront the thorny issues of the AEDPA without information the courts might find useful. For example, federal habeas courts will now have to assess whether evidence might be admissible under the AEDPA without knowing what it is. Second, to the extent that the Supreme Court has restricted the law on all writs, lower federal courts may be reluctant to invoke the law unless they can be assured that it is “necessary or proper.” Given the varied contexts in which courts and parties currently rely on the All Writs Act, any change in its use could affect everything from bankruptcy proceedings to criminal investigations. Finally, litigants can exploit the jurisdictional jurisdiction of the court to attempt to appeal a slew of mid-trial orders that are “conceptually separate” from the merits of their cases, thereby stalling litigation in federal district courts and increasing the number of piecemeal proceedings before the courts of appeal. . It is precisely because of these inefficiencies that the Supreme Court hesitated to allow interim appeals in other contexts.