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A U.S. Supreme Court decision narrowing habeas review of state court procedures may force a convicted cocaine dealer back to prison. Jose Rodriguez thought he was in the clear in 2006 after the 2d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that his petition for habeas corpus be granted because the trial judge had restricted his family’s access to his trial. But the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the 2d Circuit’s ruling and instructed it to reconsider in light of its decision in Carey v. Musladin, 127 S. Ct. 649 (2006). After applying Musladin to the facts of Rodriguez’s case, the 2d Circuit said it had no choice but to deny the petition in Rodriguez v. Miller, No. 04-6665-pr. “In the past we and other courts occasionally have relied on our own precedents to interpret and flesh out Supreme Court decisions to decide variegated petitions,” Judge Joseph McLaughlin wrote for the court. “It would appear that we can no longer do this.” Rodriguez was convicted in 1995 of selling cocaine to an undercover police officer. Sentenced to 30 years to life, he was released some 10 years into his sentence when the 2d Circuit issued its 2006 ruling. Before trial, the state moved to close the courtroom to protect the identity of the officer. The trial court judge initially decided to close the courtroom entirely, but later said he would admit Rodriguez’s mother and brother as long as they sat behind a screen that would block their view of the officer. Rodriguez’s lawyer argued that the screen would be prejudicial, and Rodriguez told his family not to attend the trial. Following his conviction, Rodriguez filed a habeas petition claiming his Sixth Amendment rights had been violated. Judge Frederic Block of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York denied the petition, but the 2d Circuit vacated and remanded in 2003. On remand, Block again denied the petition, and in 2006, the 2d Circuit again reversed, saying that “exclusion of family members requires stricter scrutiny than exclusion of the public.” The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the 2d Circuit’s ruling in light of Musladin. The justices had ruled that the 9th Circuit was wrong to overturn a state court ruling that allowed a murder victim’s family to wear buttons depicting the victim’s face during a criminal trial. The justices said that “clearly established federal law” only “refers to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of this court’s decisions at the time of the relevant state court decisions.” The effect of spectator conduct on a defendant’s right to a fair trial “is an open question in our jurisprudence.” McLaughlin said that in Musladin the justices applied the “narrowest possible reading” of its holdings assessing the prejudice of “state-sponsored courtroom practices. Leading by example, Musladin admonishes courts to read the Supreme Court’s holdings narrowly and to disregard as dicta for habeas purposes much of the underlying logic and rationale of the high court’s decisions.” McLaughlin said the circuit was now required to ignore dicta in other Supreme Court cases, including one that noted that an accused is entitled to have his relatives and friends present in the courtroom. McLaughlin then turned to Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39 (1984). To close a proceeding, Waller said, the party seeking closure must show “an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced”; the closure must be “no broader than necessary”; the court must consider “reasonable alternatives”; and the court must “make findings adequate to support the closure.” Rodriguez’s case does not “come within the narrow holdings” of Supreme Court cases on public trials, McLaughlin said, and he “cannot appeal to Supreme Court dicta or decisions of this court,” so “his petition stands or falls solely upon application of the Waller test.”

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