Stewart, Director, Arizona Department of Correction, et al. v. Martinez-Villareal
Decided on May 18, 1998; 523 US 637


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (death penalty), 8th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

May a state prison death row inmate who already has lost on one or more federal habeas corpus petitions file a subsequent petition to claim that he cannot be executed because he is "incompetent"?


A. Background:

Ramon Martinez-Villareal (respondent) was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in Arizona. His first three federal habeas corpus petitions were denied because he had not exhausted his state remedies. Respondent claimed in his fourth habeas petition that he was incompetent to be executed. The District Court dismissed that claim as premature, but granted the writ on other grounds. The Court of Appeals reversed the writ. Respondent then moved to reopen his petition despite the fact that review of his incompetency claim might be prevented by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Under AEDPA, a prisoner must ask the Court of Appeals to direct the District Court to consider such a petition. The District Court denied the motion to reopen his incompetency claim, holding that it lacked jurisdiction under AEDPA. On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the law did not apply to a petition that raises only a competency-to-be-executed claim and that Martinez-Villareal did not, therefore, need authorization to file his petition in the District Court.

The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Denise I. Young argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief were Paul Bender, Sean D. O'Brien, Fredric F. Kay, and Dale A. Baich. Bruce M. Ferg, Assistant Attorney General of Arizona, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Grant Woods, Attorney General, pro se, and Paul J. McMurdie.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
"This is a straightforward statutory construction case. All that needs to be decided is whether the circuit court correctly construed §§2244(b)(1) & (2). The state nonetheless invites this Court to undertake an examination of the Suspension Clause. To do so would require the Court to revisit delicate problems that have long baffled and divided students of the federal courts. The circuit court properly invoked the general rule that statutes should be construed to avoid serious constitutional problems. That was error only if no such problems exist. The state's elaborate brief not only fails to dispel doubts about the meaning of the Suspension Clause, but actually demonstrates the existence of the very problems it hopes to deny.

Although we agree with the circuit court's disposition of the statutory construction question, we disagree with its suggestion that, if §§2244(b)(1) & (2) are construed the way the state suggests, they would deprive this Court of jurisdiction to entertain Mr. Martinez-Villareal's claim as an original habeas matter. 118 F.3d at 631. In our view, this Court would have power to address Mr. Martinez-Villareal's claim in an original habeas petition, even if the district court did not. But the formal availability of that vehicle for Article III adjudication does not eliminate potential Suspension Clause questions and thus does not render erroneous the circuit court's reliance on the avoidance principle."

-ACLU amicus brief in Stewart v. Martinez-Villareal


Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Bar Association by Jerome J. Shestack, Jerold S. Solovy, Barry Levenstam, and C. John Koch; for the American Civil Liberties Union by Larry W. Yackle and Steven R. Shapiro; for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers by Edward M. Chikofsky, Mark E. Olive, and David M. Porter; and for the United Mexican States et al. by John P. Frank and José A. Cárdenas.
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of California et al. by Daniel E. Lungren, Attorney General of California, George Williamson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Dane R. Gillette, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Keith H. Borjon, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, and Emilio Eugene Varanini IV, Deputy Attorney General, and by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Bill Pryor of Alabama, M. Jane Brady of Delaware, Alan G. Lance of Idaho, Jeffrey A. Modisett of Indiana, Carla J. Stovall of Kansas, Mike Moore of Mississippi, Jeremiah W. Nixon of Missouri, Joseph P. Mazurek of Montana, Don Stenberg of Nebraska, Frankie S. Del Papa of Nevada, Michael F. Easley of North Carolina, D. Michael Fisher of Pennsylvania, Betty Montgomery of Ohio, Drew Edmondson of Oklahoma, Hardy Meyers of Oregon, Mark Barnett of South Dakota, Dan Morales of Texas, Jan Graham of Utah, and William U. Hill of Wyoming; and for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation by Kent Scheidegger and Charles L. Hobson.


"[N]one of our cases expounding this doctrine have ever suggested that a prisoner whose habeas petition was dismissed for failure to exhaust state remedies, and who then did exhaust those remedies and returned to federal court, was by such action filing a successive petition. A court where such a petition was filed could adjudicate these claims under the same standard as would govern those made in any other first petition.

We believe that respondent's Ford claim here - previously dismissed as premature - should be treated in the same manner as the claim of a petitioner who returns to a federal habeas court after exhausting state remedies. True, the cases are not identical; respondent's Ford claim was dismissed as premature, not because he had not exhausted state remedies, but because his execution was not imminent and therefore his competency to be executed could not be determined at that time. But in both situations, the habeas petitioner does not receive an adjudication of his claim. To hold otherwise would mean that a dismissal of a first habeas petition for technical procedural reasons would bar the prisoner from ever obtaining federal habeas review...

The State places great reliance on our decision in Felker v. Turpin, 518 U.S. 651 (1996), but we think that reliance is misplaced... It is certain that respondent's Ford claim would not be barred under any form of res judicata. Respondent brought his claim in a timely fashion, and it has not been ripe for resolution until now.

Thus, respondent's Ford claim was not a 'second or successive' petition under [Section] 2244(b) and we have jurisdiction to review the judgment of the Court of Appeals on the State's petition for certiorari. But for the same reasons that we find we have jurisdiction, we hold that the Court of Appeals was correct in deciding that respondent was entitled to a hearing on the merits of his Ford claim in the District Court. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is therefore Affirmed."

Justice Vote: 7 Pro vs. 2 Con

  • Rehnquist, W.  Pro  (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A.  Con  (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Thomas, C.  Con  (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the US Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the lower court in a 7-2 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.