We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.
WHEN BIGGER IS NOT BETTER
We have been accused from time to time of tending toward prolixity, so we can sympathize with Jorge Martinez. Jorge, serving a life sentence for drug distribution and healthcare fraud, resulting in the death of patients, filed a post-conviction motion pursuant to 28 USC 2255 that was… well, let’s say “substantial.”
As we have previously described, everyone has a basic constitutional right to habeas corpus, but that does not mean Congress cannot limit its use. And for federal inmates, Congress has done so in 28 USC 2255. The issue – one the 6th Circuit takes up in today’s case – is exactly what a 2255 motion is, a continuation of the criminal case (and thus governed by criminal rules) or a civil action.
Courts traditionally have said that a 2555 motion is neither fish nor fowl, having some characteristics of a criminal action and some of a civil action. This became a debate of more than academic interest to Jorge, because he had to seek relief in the Northern District of Ohio.
Procedures in federal cases are governed by various layers of rules adopted by the Supreme Court and given the force of law by the Rules Enabling Act. Criminal actions are subject to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Civil proceedings are governed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Appellate actions are subject to the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure. Evidence in any of the foregoing is governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence.
Section 2255 proceedings have their own procedural rules, given the clunky name “Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings for the United States District Courts”.
But layered on top of these rules are local rules adopted by district courts and appellate courts nationwide, such as the ones for the Northern District of Ohio. Especially for inmates who lack access to the Internet, learning those rules can be a tall order.
Nevertheless, the devil is in the details. The Northern District of Ohio has a rule limiting the length of memoranda attached to dispositive motions (the kind of motion that, if granted, will decide a case) to 20 pages. On one hand, this make sense, forcing lawyers to be concise and to the point. On the other hand, it’s a little draconian to apply that to an inmate who is not a trained lawyer, who only has one shot to raise every issue he or she has, and who is fighting for his or her liberty, not merely for money or property as in a civil case.
For that reason, the Northern District has been known to use some discretion on enforcing the rule. Still, when Jorge filed a 628-page 2255 motion, the court sent it back, giving him a chance to refile one that complied with the rule. Little wonder there: ten pages over on a 2255 might be forgiven, but Jorge’s filing was 32 times as long as permitted. Bigger is not always better.
Jorge refiled a 23-page motion. So far, so good. It was pretty close, except that he attached a 628-page “affidavit” that was nothing but the original filing. The judge, who had not just fallen off the turnip truck, sent that back, too, giving Jorge one more chance.
Jorge did not accept the invitation to try a third time, and the court dismissed the 2255 for noncompliance. Jorge appealed, arguing that the local civil rules should not apply to 2255 motions.
On Tuesday, the 6th Circuit disagreed, holding that the district court correctly applied Local Rule 7.1 on motion length. While noting that “there appears to be no definitive authority on the question of whether § 2255 proceedings are civil or criminal in nature, the overwhelming history of § 2255 indicates that motions filed under that section could be considered civil in nature.”
The Court said a 2255 petition is a “motion” as contemplated by the local rule:
Local Rule 7.1 is not inconsistent with any provision of § 2255… [It] states that memoranda relating to dispositive motions in standard cases must not exceed twenty pages and memoranda relating to all other motions must not exceed fifteen pages in length. The local rules also provide that non-compliance is sanctionable at the judge’s discretion.
The Court observed that Rule 12 of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings makes clear that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure apply to 2255 proceedings. And, the Court said, “even if § 2255 proceedings are more criminal in nature, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 57 allows district courts to apply local rules as long as the litigant has notice. Martinez clearly had notice in this case.”
Jorge – who is serving a life sentence without chance of parole – is left without any chance for a 2255 motion, his one and only genuine shot at habeas corpus. Sure, he was being cute with his second filing, and he should have cleaned up the pleading. Nevertheless, the sanction seems to smack of Draco just a bit.
Martinez v. United States, Case No. 14-4258 (6th Cir., Aug. 1, 2017)
– Thomas L. Root