Biden-nominated Judge Lucy Koh cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 decision that allowed an individual to pursue in federal court a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. Troy Ray Emanuel contended that his counsel in state court improperly pushed him to accept and then not appeal a plea deal. Trump judge Mark Bennett dissented and would have dismissed the claim. The July 2022 decision was in Emanuel v Neven.
What was the case about?
A Nevada court sentenced Troy Ray Emanuel Jr. for up to 35 years after a plea deal in a serious battery case. Emanuel later contended that he received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel. He maintained that the lawyer who represented him at trial (Tannery) provided ineffective assistance by “misleading” him about the deal and whether he would get a similar sentence as co-defendants. He contended that his sentencing counsel (Nelson) improperly convinced him “not to withdraw” his plea and then failed to appeal.
Emanuel raised these claims in a petition for post-conviction relief that he filed himself in a state district court. That court, however, appointed Nelson to represent Emanuel, despite the obvious conflict of interest and Emanuel’s protest. Nelson failed to mention Emanuel’s claims against him in briefs or in a hearing. Nelson also claimed that Tannery was out of state during a key hearing in the state proceeding, even though Tannery was elsewhere at the court at the time. The judge refused a request to postpone the hearing and later ruled against Emanuel on his claims.
Emanuel appealed to the state supreme court. Even though it was clear that alleged misconduct by Nelson was a crucial issue, the court appointed Nelson to represent Emanuel. After Nelson missed two filing deadlines, the court removed Nelson and Emanuel received new counsel.
In a “Fast Track Statement” required in the case, Emanuel raised several grounds for reversal and a new hearing on his claims. These included the lower court’s improper appointment of Nelson as his counsel and the failure to postpone the hearing when Tannery was unavailable or to press to find him. But Emanuel’s claims were denied.
What happened when the case went to federal court?
With his new counsel, Emanuel then filed a request for post-conviction relief in federal district court. As in state court, he claimed that Tannery and Nelson had provided him with constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel throughout the proceedings.
Under federal law, a person like Emanuel must “exhaust” such claims in state court before a federal court can consider them. This effectively means that the state supreme court must have a “full opportunity to resolve” the constitutional claims.
The state asserted that Emanuel had not properly exhausted his claims, because his Fast Track Statement focused on the improper appointment of Nelson and other procedural defects in the state post-conviction proceedings. The federal district court agreed and dismissed Emanuel’s’ claims. He appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
What did the Ninth Circuit do?
In a 2-1 decision in which Judge Koh cast the deciding vote, the Ninth Circuit reversed. The majority explained that “our precedent” makes clear that “when procedural errors taint” a state post-conviction proceeding as in this case, a petitioner “may satisfy the exhaustion requirement” by “identifying those errors on appeal and seeking a remand.” Emanuel did exactly that.
In dissent, Trump judge Bennett claimed that the majority’s precedent did not apply because the courts there had dismissed the case itself on erroneous procedural grounds. But as the majority wrote, “no meaningful distinction” exists between such cases and this one, in which the state court made erroneous procedural rulings that “prevented the petitioner from developing facts to support his claims.” In addition, the majority noted, it would have been “unreasonable” and “futile” to require “a petitioner like Emanuel” to fully present the merits of his constitutional claims when the state court’s errors rendered him “unable to undertake meaningful factual development.”
While making clear that it expressed no view on the merits of Emanuel’s constitutional claims, the majority sent the case back to the federal district court. There, he should have a full and fair opportunity to develop evidence and present his claims that his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel was violated.
Why are the decision and Judge Koh’s vote important?
All too often, poor people’s crucial right to effective assistance of counsel is violated in state criminal proceedings. The whole purpose of allowing people like Emanuel to present these kinds of claims to federal courts after exhaustion of state remedies is to serve as a check on state abuse of such important constitutional rights.
Judge Koh’s deciding vote in the Emanuel case vindicated this important principle. Trump judge Bennett’s dissent would have done the opposite and denied Emanuel an opportunity to fairly present his claims. The case provides yet another example of the importance of expeditiously confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Koh to our federal courts.