In a 4-3 decision, the majority in People v. Padilla (May 26, 2022, no. S263375) --- Cal.5th ---, started with the proposition that California’s Prop 57, which requires minors to be charged in juvenile court, is retroactive in all nonfinal cases. But when is a case “final”? Here, Padilla, who at age 16 murdered his mother by stabbing her 45 times, was convicted way back in 1999. That seems pretty final, right?
Turns out, “finality” is not quite literal, but more a term of legal art. The majority was more comfortable with blurring the lines than was the dissent, which is why the 4-3 split.
There were some unique twists and turns since the 1999 judgment and sentence of life without possibility of parole (LWOP) that made the judgment nonfinal in the majority’s view:
First, back in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. 460, that mandatory sentencing of juveniles is cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Raising Miller, Padilla successfully filed for habeas in 2014. He got resentenced to the same LWOP, but he appealed that in 2016.
In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down clarification in Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) 577 U.S. 190, about the analysis required for sentencing minors. So Padilla got the resentencing reversed and remanded again.
By this time in 2020, Prop 57 passed. Padilla saw his open shot on goal and took it. Although he had only sought habeas (and subsequent appellate relief) relating to his sentencing, now he would challenge the conviction, too, raising the newly-enacted Prop 57.
Justice Liu for a 4-3 majority held Prop 57 is retroactive to nonfinal cases, and that the judgment was nonfinal.
Generally, new criminal laws do not apply retroactively. One exception to the rule against retroactivity is for new laws that mitigate punishment. In In re Estrada (1965) 63 Cal.2d 740, 745 (Estrada) the Court held that such laws are presumed to apply to cases charged before the law's enactment but not yet final. (In re Estrada (1965) 63 Cal.2d 740, 745 (Estrada).)
But the exception only applies until the judgment becomes final. (Estrada, supra, at p. 745.) This is a separation-of-powers principle that prevents the legislature from declaring the law involved in a final judgment to be different than what the court said it was. when the judicial department has concluded its judgment in a particular case, “Congress may not declare by retroactive legislation that the law applicable to that very case was something other than what the courts said it was.” (Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc. (1995) 514 U.S. 211, 227 (Plaut).)
Was Padilla’s case final? No, because the habeas proceedings made the final judgment nonfinal.
A case is final when “the criminal proceeding as a whole” has ended (People v. Esquivel (2021) 11 Cal.5th 671, 678 (Esquivel)), and “the courts can no longer provide a remedy to a defendant on direct review” (In re Spencer (1965) 63 Cal.2d 400, 405 (Spencer)). “When Padilla's sentence was vacated, the trial court regained the jurisdiction and duty to consider what punishment was appropriate for him, and Padilla regained the right to appeal whatever new sentence was imposed. His judgment thus became nonfinal, and it remains nonfinal in its present posture because the Court of Appeal ordered a second resentencing, from which the Attorney General now appeals.”
The Court also considered the difference between a direct challenge to a nonfinal judgment, and a collateral attack to a final judgment. Merely filing a collateral attack does not make the judgment nonfinal. As the high court has explained, collateral review is distinct from direct review in that it seeks to unwind a judgment that has been affirmed on appeal. (Brecht v. Abrahamson (1993) 507 U.S. 619, 634.)
The AG argued Padilla was making a collateral attack to a final judgment, so the Estrada presumption did not apply to make Prop 57 applicable here. But the Court disagreed: “Padilla's present appeal from his resentencing is part of direct review of a nonfinal judgment, not collateral review of a final judgment.”
Justice Corrigan in dissent, joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Perren of the Second District sitting pro tem, argued that “The majority's suggestion that a long-final case can subsequently become “nonfinal” under Estrada essentially treats “finality” like a switch that can be toggled on and off.”
Justice Corrigan went on to note that the result will be that, if the trial court finds Padilla should have been charged in juvenile court under Prop 57, “the juvenile court could no longer assert jurisdiction over him. His immediate release would be required, regardless of any sign of rehabilitation or consideration of public safety. It seems highly unlikely that voters intended, by silence, to dispense with these carefully crafted procedures for the treatment of youth offenders facing LWOP terms.”
What is surprising about this case is that the high court justices were so evenly split on the question of what makes a judgment “final”—a foundational point of appellate procedure.
But as the majority and dissenting opinions illustrate, the question is hard to answer. No one doubts that the original 1999 judgment was final after the Supreme Court denied review and Padilla chose not to petition for certiorari. And no one doubts that, despite the finality, the sentence could be challenged via a petition for habeas corpus after the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller prompted a constitutional challenge.
So that prompts the question: Is a “final” judgment really final if it can be challenged by collateral attack like habeas (as opposed to directly as by a direct appeal)? And if it is still considered “final,” in what sense? At a minimum, it is clear we do not mean the judgment is “final” in a literal sense.
The upshot of the majority opinion is that, once a judgment has been successfully reopened to review via a collateral attack, all bets are off, and the judgment is no longer final. So the Prop 57 challenge was available, even to attack the underlying charges — despite the fact that these had been beyond the scope of the collateral challenge.
The upshot of the dissenting opinion is that, although a judgment may be challenged via collateral attack, the review and remedies available should be limited to those available by the collateral challenge. So here, the collateral challenge did not reach the underlying charges, so these should remain “final” and beyond appellate review.
Tim Kowal is an appellate specialist certified by the California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Tim helps trial attorneys and clients win their cases and avoid error on appeal. He co-hosts the Cal. Appellate Law Podcast at www.CALPodcast.com, and publishes a newsletter of appellate tips for trial attorneys at www.tvalaw.com/articles. Contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org or (714) 641-1232.
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