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Talk about stiff medicine. U.S. Supreme Court justices voted unanimously to reverse the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in three separate cases Monday, handing down summary reversals that remind the appellate court about the limits of its power. “Summary reversals are an extraordinary result in the U.S. Supreme Court, because they are usually reserved for cases in which the result below was unquestionably wrong,” said Philadelphia appellate attorney Howard Bashman. “And three on one day, directed at the same federal appellate court, could be understood as sending a strong message of disapproval.” Another appellate lawyer, Hastings College of the Law professor Rory Little, didn’t think the 9th Circuit should be embarrassed. “[The Supreme Court] knows how to write a strong rebuke,” Little said. “It’s not a strong rebuke.” The three unsigned reversals were the only decisions the Supreme Court released Monday. Significantly, two reversed the 9th Circuit in habeas corpus appeals from California state courts. In each case, the high court said the circuit decision “exceeds the limits imposed on federal habeas review.” Judge Harry Pregerson, one of the 9th Circuit’s most liberal jurists, was the principal author of each opinion. The Supreme Court’s actions reinstated the death penalty for John Visciotti, convicted in a 1982 robbery and murder, and the second-degree murder conviction of William Packer. Monday’s third reversal chastised the 9th Circuit for deciding an issue that should have been left to the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Board of Immigration Appeals. 9th Circuit Judge David Thompson was the author of that ruling. Little defended the circuit’s habeas rulings, saying that in attempting to “tighten up” habeas review, the Supreme Court could eliminate it altogether. Hastings professor Vikram Amar said the 9th Circuit has nothing to hang its head about. “It reaffirms my suspicion that the Supreme Court just doesn’t trust the 9th Circuit … They’re not over the top, blatant mistakes that the 9th Circuit is making,” Amar said. “The 9th Circuit’s criticism of the California courts was not completely unfounded.” University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor Arthur Hellman, who follows the 9th Circuit’s record at the Supreme Court, said the three reversals were rare. “It’s a striking thing to happen this early in the term, but it is early in the term, and we might want to see what happens later,” Hellman said. He also pointed out that on Monday, the Supreme Court let stand a 9th Circuit decision to allow a lawsuit against Humboldt County sheriff’s deputies for swabbing pepper spray in the eyes of logging protesters. The Supreme Court had already asked the 9th Circuit to re-examine its decision under recently decided precedent. “That at least is saying they’re letting the 9th Circuit’s decision stand in a case where it might have appeared that the 9th Circuit was not following the Supreme Court’s decision,” Hellman said. “All the emphasis will be on the reversals, but the denial of cert is the other side of the picture.” Deputy Attorney General Dane Gillette, whose office was the beneficiary of two of the reversals, said he hadn’t seen anything like it, and that the decisions imply that the 9th Circuit could not have reversed those cases under any circumstances. In Visciotti’s case, that could mean an end to his appeals. “It would suggest that all of his federal habeas appeals are finished,” Gillette said. Gillette said an execution date will likely be set for early next year. The three cases are: Early v. Packer, 02 C.D.O.S. 10897; Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Ventura, 02 C.D.O.S 10898; and Woodford v. Visciotti, 02 C.D.O.S. 10900.

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