Legal News and Appellate Tips

Each week, TVA appellate attorney Tim Kowal reviews several recent decisions out of the appellate courts in California, and elsewhere, and reports about the ones that might help you get an edge in your cases and appeals.

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Tag: Stare Decisis

A mere procedural error is not a miscarriage of justice,

Sometimes even appellate justices are annoyed by the rules of appellate procedure. Apparently the entire panel would like to affirm this denial of a resentencing petition filed by Arreguin, convicted in 1993 for his part in the murder of Richard Schell. Arreguin served as the getaway driver and urged the gunman to “shoot ‘im, shoot ‘im,” which the gunman did, fatally. But the California Supreme Court in People v. Strong (2022) 13 Cal.5th 698, 717-718 held that earlier findings that a criminal defendant was a “major participant” and showed “reckless indifference” were not binding because, of late, the Court has relaxed those standards.

So upon filing of a resentencing petition and alleging he could not be convicted of murder under the newly relaxed standards, Arreguin is entitled to resentencing.

Justice Gilbert, writing for the majority, concludes it is checkmated by Strong.

But Justice Kenneth Yegan is not going quietly. Although under the doctrine of stare decisis, “I must follow the rulings of the Supreme Court, and if that court wishes to jump off of a figurative Pali, I, lemming-like, must leap right after it. However, I reserve my First Amendment right to kick and scream on my way down to the rocks below.”

Here is how Justice Yegan would have gone about affirming the denial of resentencing:

“Respectfully, there is another way to discharge our duty at the California Court of Appeal. That is to say, the California Constitution admonishes us to not reverse an order unless there is a miscarriage of justice. (Cal. Const., Art. VI, § 13.) There is no miscarriage of justice here. There is a procedural error only. It does not matter that appellant "checked the box" stating he could not presently be convicted of murder. This statement is false. And because appellant falsely checked this box, a new round of litigation has followed. This is a poor idea stemming from the declared false premise.”

The majority sympathizes, but thinks that operative precedent indicates the error is structural. “[W]e hope our Supreme Court will offer guidance on whether requests for section 1172.6 evidentiary hearings in felony murder convictions prior to Banks and Clark are ever subject to a harmless error analysis.”

Comment: I consider is odd that the court assumes the right at issue here is structural apparently despite a clear articulation of such a rule by the Supreme Court. In another recent case last year in People v. Whitmore (D4d3 no. G059779) the appellate court held that a right to an in-person jury trial was not structural, even though it is hard to imagine a more textbook example of a structural right of procedure.

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Counsel Admonished for Failing to Note Order on Appeal Was Not Appealable

The appellate court in People v. Williams (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 584 admonished a criminal defendant’s attorney for failing to tell the court about a relevant case that had held the kind of order involved there was not appealable.

The court warned that any future violation “may warrant disciplinary review by the State Bar or other corrective action.”

The Upshot: If you are an appellant, this is a good reminder that the Court of Appeal pays close attention to your Statement of Appealability in your opening brief. Do not gloss over it. If there is doubt about appealability, be prepared to raise the collateral-order doctrine, or to seek review on a writ basis. If you are unsure whether your order is appealable, consider consulting an appellate specialist.

In the post I also note one thing that bothers me. Remember that California has no horizontal stare decisis: no Court of Appeal opinion is binding on any other Court of Appeal. So why do we require attorneys to tell appellate courts about other appellate decisions that they have no obligation to follow?

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