An award winning brief came out on the losing side of a death penalty appeal.
Georgia Solicitor General Sarah Warren and her staff won the Best Brief Award from the National Association of Attorneys General at the group’s summer meeting in Portland, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced.
Warren has also been nominated to fill an opening on the Georgia Supreme Court. If chosen, she would follow in the footsteps of her predecessor, Justice Britt Grant, who will be leaving the high court upon confirmation of her appointment by President Donald Trump to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
“We are very proud of the team,” Carr said in a news release posted on his website. The team includes Warren along with Deputy Solicitor General Andrew Pinson, with “strong support” from Deputy Attorney General for the Capitol Litigation Division Beth Burton and Senior Assistant Attorney General in the Capitol Litigation Division Sabrina Graham.
“Our office takes very seriously our role in upholding the rule of law and protecting the interests of Georgians. In everything we do, we strive for excellence, and this award further underscores the integrity and skill that’s embedded in our process,” Carr said.
The NAAG Best Brief Award is presented annually for excellence in brief-writing for the Supreme Court of the United States, recognizing that appellate brief writing and oral argument are specialized skills, Carr said.
The winning brief was 72 pages arguing against the habeas appeal of Marion Wilson, sentenced to death for a 1996 murder. The Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the execution, but SCOTUS agreed to hear Wilson’s appeal. He argued ineffective assistance of counsel and said his lawyer should have presented mitigating evidence from his childhood and a deformity in his frontal lobe.
“There are many reasons to reject Wilson’s position in this case, but in truth, just these points refute it,” Warren wrote. “Wilson contends that, if the last state-court merits decision is not accompanied by an opinion, a federal habeas court must ‘look through’ it and apply” a different standard. Warren argued that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 “requires the federal court to evaluate the last state-court merits decision.”
Warren added that nothing in that act “directs habeas review to a lower state court’s opinion just because the last state-court merits decision is summary.”
Warren won over Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote a dissent joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
“After a state supreme court issues a summary order sustaining a criminal conviction, should a federal habeas court reviewing that decision presume it rests only on the reasons found in a lower state court opinion? The answer is no,” Gorsuch said. “The statute governing federal habeas review permits no such ‘look through’ presumption. Nor do traditional principles of appellate review. In fact, we demand the opposite presumption for our work—telling readers that we independently review each case and that our summary affirmances may be read only as signaling agreement with a lower court’s judgment and not necessarily its reasons. Because I can discern no good reason to treat the work of our state court colleagues with less respect than we demand for our own, I would reject petitioner’s presumption and must respectfully dissent.”
But Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, reversed the Eleventh Circuit and remanded Wilson’s appeal for further consideration. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Breyer.
The SCOTUS reversal in Wilson’s favor came in April. The next month, Georgia executed Wilson’s co-defendant, Robert Butts Jr. Both men were convicted in the death of Donovan Parks, an off-duty corrections officer. News reports said Parks was still wearing his suit and tie from Bible study when he went to Walmart to buy $8 worth of cat and fish food and agreed to give two men a ride.