What do you think of 8-7 decision in House v. Bell ?

There was a court decision 5 years ago I’ve never been able to forget. I’m curious if other Dopers were aware of the decision at the time, and what thoughts they have about it. A reason I’m astounded is the way the judges’ decisions seemed to be determined by the Party identity of the President who appointed them. I did not “cherry-pick” this case; indeed I’m no legal scholar whatsoever and (except for noting certain consistencies in SCOTUS decisions) haven’t examined judge affiliations in any other case.

  1. Have you read of the case?
  2. Were you aware of the peculiar Party correlation?
  3. Do you think the Party correlation was just a coincidence?

The case Paul Gregory House v. Ricky Bell (Warden) was decided 6 October 2004, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The decision (http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/04a0345p-06.pdf) is quite readable (it reads more like excerpts from a whodunit than a legal document!) Below (in a “spoiler”) I’ve copied an excerpt from that document.

Paul Gregory House was convicted of a 1985 rape-murder and the death penalty was imposed. Eventual DNA testing showed that crime-scene semen was the victim’s husband’s, not House’s; moreover the husband confessed to the crime. After awaiting execution for almost 19 years, House’s claims of innocence were heard by the 15 judges of a federal Court of Appeals.

Judge Norris and seven concurring judges denied a writ of habeas corpus because “factual determinations are entitled to a presumption of correctness.” Judge Morris and five concurring judges dissented, preferring to free House immediately due to actual innocence. Judge Gilman filed a separate dissent in which the State of Tennessee would be given the option of a new trial instead of freeing House.

(By the way, after more than 20 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, House has finally been freed by the Supreme Court. Right-wing cynics may say “See, the system works!” Left-wing cynics may reply that SCOTUS had more important “fish to fry” than the execution of an innocent man.)

The following table shows the individual judges, their opinion in this case, and which President appointed them.

Reagan / denied / Danny Julian Boggs
Reagan / denied / Alan Eugene Norris
Bush41 / denied / Eugene Edward Siler, Jr.
Bush41 / denied / Alice M. Batchelder
Bush43 / denied / Julia Smith Gibbons
Bush43 / denied / John M. Rogers
Bush43 / denied / Jeffrey Sutton
Bush43 / denied / Deborah L. Cook

Carter / free / Gilbert Stroud Merritt, Jr.
Carter / free / Boyce F. Martin, Jr.
Clinton / free / Martha Craig Daughtrey
Clinton / free / Karen Nelson Moore
Clinton / free / R. Guy Cole, Jr.
Clinton / free / Eric L. Clay
Clinton / retrial / Ronald Lee Gilman

The vote was 8-7 against House. The appointing Party was also split 8-7. To save you a trip to the calculator, if we suppose these two events to be uncorrelated, the chance that the 8-7 splits will coincide as in fact they did are 1 in 6435. Coincidence?

Excerpt from Merritt’s dissenting opinion:

[SPOILER]In this case, however, I would go further and issue the writ of habeas corpus because the prisoner has affirmatively established a free-standing case of actual innocence. This is that rare and extraordinary case where petitioner has provided “a truly persuasive demonstration of ‘actual innocence’” that should free the prisoner immediately. Herrera, 506 U.S. at 417. Through extremely persuasive and affirmative evidence that Mr. Muncey killed his wife, House has shown that it is highly probable that he is completely innocent of any wrongdoing whatever. There is no reasonable basis for disbelieving the six witnesses who now incriminate Mr. Muncey as the perpetrator of the crime. The most compelling part of this new testimony involves his confession to the murder in front of two witnesses who have no connection to House and no bias against Mr. Muncey. Furthermore, before his wife’s body was even located, he solicited a neighbor to fabricate an alibi on his behalf. He was heard returning home around the time of the murder. And considering his history of domestic violence and his wife’s plans to leave him he had a motive to kill. In contrast, there is no evidence of a motive for House. All of the state’s physical evidence, both blood and semen, allegedly tying House to the murder, has been effectively rebutted. The new body of evidence as a whole so completely undermines the case against House and establishes a persuasive case against Muncey that, had it been presented at trial, no rational juror could have found evidence sufficient for conviction.

The new evidence so completely turns the case around that the proof is no longer constitutionally sufficient to warrant a conviction or imposition of the death penalty. Thus House should be immediately released.[/SPOILER]

Liberals sometimes say, sarcastically, that to right-wingers the death penalty is such an important “American value” that the executed person’s innocence is not a drawback. Cases like House v. Bell make one wonder if they’re right!

In some political debates, some argue for an abstract ideal while ignoring the “facts on the ground”; my “real agenda” here is to introduce some facts that may change some preconceptions. But let’s not hijack this thread into reiterating smug abstract preconceptions; let’s just agree on simple facts, starting with the vote in House v. Bell (warden).

While I do, of course, agree the end result is shocking, and while I’m absolutely nowhere near being a law scholar, I think the stated purpose of the Appeals Courts is to examine whether or not the original judicial proceeding fucked up in the *process *of issuing this or that verdict, not to question the validity or factuality of the verdict itself.

That is to say, if the evidence presented at the time of his trial was deemed conclusive, and the judicial arm didn’t twist the law to convict, and due process was observed, etc… etc…, then it doesn’t matter if he’s innocent or not, or if his innocence is proven post factum - his appeal will still fail, because the Appeals court is not in the business of examining whether or not the facts of the case are, well, factual. That’s the job of the original prosecution, defense and jury.

Besides, even if that weren’t the case, critically examining the facts of a given case after 5, 10, 19 years must prove problematic to say the least. Witnesses have long forgotten what they saw, or simply disappeared, same goes for the cops who investigated the case, the evidence itself can be misfiled, tampered with, lost etc… ; and a ruling that in *this *case the facts themselves should be re-examined would automatically force the Appeals Courts to do the same in every single case. That’s a LOT of problematic work ahead.

I don’t see what’s wrong with reexamining the facts, especially when extraordinary circumstances demand it. Otherwise, how is anybody ever freed from prison? I hear about new DNA evidence exonerating people all the time; does the warden just set them free out of the goodness of his heart?

My understanding of the Appeals Courts role (which I freely admit could be wrong) lines up with Kobal’s. However, I do feel that there should be some process in the higher court system for re-examining these things. It’s a “human” system, and it can be as wrong as humans can ever be. When that results in the state-sponsored taking of life of the innocent, we don’t have a Justice system, we have a bureacracy designed to serve itself, not the People, the socity, it was set up to defend and protect.

And the OP is spot on, and here’s why:


Liberals tend to think, “This is the way things should be, and I’ll work to make it so!”

Conservatives tend to reply: “That’s all fine and dandy, but that’s not the way things are right now; I’ll not exceed my mandate and create precedent out of thin air.”


So in the case cited in the OP you have the Liberals exceeding their role (according to my understanding of the role of the Appeals Court system), and for what I think are good and noble reasons, ones even overall more beneficial to a fair and just Judicial system, and the Conservatives reluctant to exceed their role and create a precedent, for which there may be seriously screwed up unintended consequences.

One reason the Merritt’s opinion excerpt was so long is that I wanted to include “This is that rare and extraordinary case…”.

But anyway, my question wasn’t about House’s innocence, or the correctness of any legal decision. It was simply whether anyone else found it remarkable that of 8 Republican appointees on that court, all 8 voted to keep an apparently innocent man on death row; of 7 Democrat appointees, all 7 voted to release him or give him a new trial.

Perhaps conservatives will side with the Republican appointees and treat the dissenters as well-intentioned “activists.” But I doubt if “activism” vs strictness adequately sums up the partisan judiciary. (Didn’t the Supreme Court’s recent decision just actively overturn established law?)

Virtually all Republican appointees to the bench are members of The Federalist Society, which is a signal to anybody that they will vote party line if appointed to the bench. It is the most insidious assault on the US Constitution ever devised.

It looks like this thread can be summarized:

And Doper response (or lack thereof) was

Well, maybe the bias was already too well-known for comment, but let me develop an argument:

  1. Most Americans are centrist.
  2. No one expects judges to be identical robots, but still one would hope that most would be, in some sense, “centrist.”
  3. Many legislators would like to be more-or-less centrist, if politics allowed it.
  4. Despite these facts, the federal judiciary has a clear and undesirable partisan bias.

I claim this must be a symptom of severe dysfunction.


Y’know what I find interesting? The fact that most people don’t really have a clue what the Appelate court does. Including the Dope, it seems.

Amen. We were told at law school to join up if we wanted any kind of governmental job. Even the ones that weren’t politically appointed.

This isn’t true. Someone with a criminal law background can come along and fill in the details, but it is quite possible for an appeals court to order a new trial based on new facts (like exculpatory DNA evidence). Suffuce it to say, if someone proves he is innocent, there are procedural mechanisms that can secure his release. In fact, it happened in this case (as the OP notes, House has been freed).

While Searching for the name of my very first thread, I came across the very second thread. I think it’s as topical as ever.

I notice that almost no Doper deigned to actually answer any of the three questions I posed:1. Have you read of the case?
2. Were you aware of the peculiar Party correlation?
3. Do you think the Party correlation was just a coincidence?

… so I’ll try again.

What do you mean by “coincidence?”

The rationale given by the majority is a “conservative” approach to judicial review issues. One would expect judges who were appointed by “conservative” presidents to have “conservative” approaches. The rationales given by the dissenters are “liberal” approaches to judicial review issues. One would expect judges who were appointed by “liberal” presidents to have “liberal” approaches. So in this regard, it is not “coincidence” that the split happened along “party” lines.

(As an aside, we could engage in a discussion of the relative likelihood of a conservative president appointing an actually non-conservative judge vs. a liberal president appointing an actually non-liberal judge, but that seems to be a quite extensive discussion probably outside the scope of this thread.)

There is no indication, however, in the opinions, that the judges who wrote those opinions were simply practicing outcome-oriented jurisprudence. The three opinions appear to be well-reasoned. They simply start from different assumptions about what should be done about “finality” in determinations of fact by courts. So in that regard, I would assert it is indeed a “coincidence”, because the alignment is not based upon presumed party beliefs about things like being tough on crime, etc.

Which meaning of “coincidence” did you intend for people to discuss?

Welcome to the modern world. Any thought that the courts are not just another partisan body has long since been exploded. Remember the 2000 election? Now SCOTUS splits along partisan lines is so familiar that it is not to be remarked upon.

Yes, I know that appellate courts are primarily to examine procedural questions. But I cannot believe they cannot also correct gross miscarriages of justice.

If I toss a nickel eight times and a dime seven times and the nickel comes up heads eight times, while the dime comes up tails seven times that could be a chance coincidence — a 16,000-to-1 odds-against long-shot will win the money one time in 16,000. Or the result could be non-coincidental — the coins could be “loaded” or even double-faced. Does that explain what I mean by “(chance) coincidence”?

I suppose there are two philosophies of jurisprudence. In one theory, people whom we know to be innocent should be set free. In another theory, finality is such a virtue that innocent convicts should remain in prison, Note that there was essentially no real doubt about Paul House’s innocence at the time of the 8-7 decision.

Discussion needn’t be limited to the three questions I asked. Further questions include:

4. Which policy of justice is preferred : the one that frees the innocent man who’d been wrongfully incarcerated for 19 years? Or the one that keeps him in prison awaiting the electric chair?
5. If the judge’s party-decision correlation was not just chance, what does this tell us about the relative values of America’s two political parties?

Can anybody even say with a straight face that the “justice” system has anything at all to do with justice? It’s a tool like any other, and the people in control of that tool wield it for their own benefit. Abstract philosophical concepts don’t really come into play.

So “Justice isn’t just” is akin to “Dog bites man”? Nothing new to see here; move along, folks.

I’m still waiting for someone to comment on the fact that seven out of 15 Judges did vote to free the innocent man … and those 7 were precisely the seven who were appointed by Democratic Presidents.

I’ve already commented on that. You have chosen not to respond to what I said about why it happened.

And your analogy still does not establish what you are about with this “debate”. Are you asserting that judges in this case were outcome-oriented based upon who appointed them? Or are you asserting that judges are appointed by certain presidents because they have particular judicial philosophies?

Until you actually step up and say which we are to discuss, it’s hard to give much time to the thread.

It was my understanding that a criminal conviction could be appealed either on the basis of errors in process or on the basis of new evidence. How does that not apply here?

IMHO, the reason why you are outraged by the judges in this case is because you see things like this in such black and white terms.

Simply because she had sex with her husband in the hours prior to her death does not mean that House did not kill her. Simply because two questionable witnesses came forward nearly ten to twenty years later with stories that the original judge looked upon with severe skepticism does not show House’s actual innocence.

Even with the new evidence, the majority pointed out:

So, respectfully, your implication that the court was presented with evidence which conclusively proved House’s innocence is overstated.

To be “new evidence”, it is usually the case that the evidence has to have been undiscoverable with reasonable diligence at the time of the original proceeding. See, for example, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60