WASHINGTON -- A divided Supreme Court, taking a new step to cut off multiple appeals of criminal convictions, ruled yesterday that most inmates will have to press all their challenges the first time they come to federal court, or forfeit them.
The 6-3 ruling, in a Georgia death row case, could reduce the number of attempts by inmates under death sentence across the country to overturn their convictions and sentences.
It affects as well inmates serving time in state prisons for all kinds of crimes, whenever they might complain to federal courts about the constitutionality of their guilty verdicts or their sentences.
If a state inmate can raise an issue the first time a challenge is taken to federal court but fails to do so, that issue generally cannot be raised in any second or later challenge -- unless the inmate can meet a tough new burden of proof -- the court ruled.
Failure to press at the outset a claim of a constitutional defect in a case will be excused, the court said, only if the inmate can show that something actually prevented raising that issue and -- in addition -- can prove that the claimed defect made a difference in the outcome of the verdict or sentence.
Those requirements, the dissenting justices argued, almost amount to a certainty that claims left out the first time will be "permanently barred" from federal court review.
The majority opinion stressed, as the court has been doing increasingly in recent years, the need it sees to bring state criminal cases to an end rather than having them linger for years through repeated challenges in federal courts. The court has taken a number of steps to reduce such multiple appeals; yesterday's appeared to be one of the more far-reaching.
Re-examining a state conviction in federal court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote, frustrates state power to punish wrongdoers, because "the power of a state to pass [criminal] laws means little if the state cannot enforce them."
Although the right to make basic challenges to a verdict or sentence in federal court is guaranteed in the Constitution, that very right, the majority opinion said, "strikes at finality" of state convictions, so it must not be abused.
The decision appeared to be a basic modification of several earlier rulings of the court, going back to 1963 -- when a liberal-dominated court, under then-Chief Justice Earl Warren, was expanding broadly the right to challenge state convictions in federal court by filing so-called "writs of habeas corpus." (That "writ" goes back in history some seven centuries, to the English charter of liberties, Magna Carta, of 1215, and it has been guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution since 1789.)
Before yesterday, the current court had ruled that state prisoners could not bring a challenge to a federal court if they failed to make it at the trial itself; had limited their right to bring challenges that had not been fully explored first in state court; and had denied them the right to take advantage of new constitutional decisions that come out after their convictions have become final.
In the new ruling, the court was spelling out a whole new doctrine to explain when a "habeas corpus" challenge will be thrown out because an inmate is found to have "abused" the writ -- that is, "abused" the right to make multiple challenges in federal court.
It will no longer be enough for an inmate, trying to pose an issue after skipping it the first time in federal court, to show that he or she had not deliberately left out the issue to try to gain some legal advantage, the court said.
Now, if the inmate had enough information that the challenge could have been included the first time, failure to have done so will mean the issue is dead, unless the strict new standard for an exception is met.
The ruling was the second major defeat in recent years for Georgia death row inmate Warren McCleskey, who awaits execution for the 1978 killing of a police officer during a furniture store robbery. Four years ago the court ruled against a sweeping claim by him that the death penalty is unconstitutional.
More than 12 years ago, Warren McCleskey was sentenced to die for the murder of police Officer Frank Schlatt during a 1978 robbery at the Dixie Furniture Store in Atlanta. Since then, he has been in and out of federal court repeatedly, seeking to overturn his conviction and death sentence.
He confessed to police that he had been at the crime scene but insisted that he was not the trigger man. Later, a fellow inmate said McCleskey boasted that he had done the killing and asserted that he would have shot his way out of the store even if a dozen police officers had been there.
Yesterday, his latest legal claim -- that police unconstitutionally put the other inmate close to him to get evidence against him -- was turned aside in the second Supreme Court ruling on his case.