What do a Writ of Mandamus, 12(b)(6), the Death Penalty, and a Batson Challenge Have in Common?

The answer is Herbert Smulls, who Missouri executed late last night. The last few days of Smulls’ life were filled with a procedural mess involving an en banc Eighth Circuit judgment and a stay of execution by the Supreme Court of the United States. On January 24, by a vote of 7-3, the Eighth Circuit  issued a writ of mandamus on behalf of the Missouri Director of the Department of Corrections directed at the district court judge who the Eighth Circuit found had abused its discretion. The district court had ordered discovery so that Smulls could find out the doctor, pharmacist, and laboratory that were prescribing and supplying the drugs to be used in his execution (and thus, determine if the death penalty drug would cause excessive pain and suffering in violation of the 8th Amendment). The en banc Eighth Circuit granted the extraordinary remedy of a writ of mandamus ordering the the district court to vacate its discovery order. The majority of the Eighth Circuit held that  the district court had abused its discretion by denying Missouri’s 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss on the underlying 8th Amendment claim. Notably, the Eighth Circuit reached its conclusion without mentioning 12(b)(6) at all and it isn’t until the dissent by Judge Bye that the underlying civil claim appellate posture is revealed.

Then, on Monday, the Supreme Court issued a stay barring the execution of Smulls. Doug Berman heard, from a knowledgeable source, that the stay was issued not regarding the 8th Amendment claim, but based upon a Batson challenge (which wasn’t even before the en banc 8th Circuit as far as I can tell). If true, the stay was truly remarkable because Batson challenges (based upon racial exclusion of jurors by the prosecutor) are almost never granted, of little interest to the modern Supreme Court, and usually litigated far earlier in the appellate process. However, yesterday, the Supreme Court lifted its stay and it is unlikely that we will ever find out the details underlying the last minute Batson challenge (if there was one).

My first reaction from a procedural perspective is that there has to be a better way. It is a very strange world were 12(b)(6), mandamus, and the criminal death penalty appear in a single case. Yet, a quick Lexis search revealed 47 other opinions issued with those three legal issues. Notably, all of the recent cases involved litigation over drug cocktails for the death penalty. Significantly, none involved Batson and the Supreme Court was seemingly absent from those cases. In some part, this can be traced back to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 which barred second or successive habeas petitions. As a result, defense counsel must exploit other procedures for relief once the collateral habeas appellate process has been exhausted. This case illustrates the bizarre legal gymnastics that result. I joked with my colleague that you could teach most of a federal courts class with just this case.

Reading the Eighth Circuit majority, concurring, and dissent opinions shows that the judges are essentially in the dark on how these disputes should be handled. The majority infers its abuse of discretion finding from dicta in Baze v. Rees. The dissent rightfully, in my opinion, points out that Baze has as much to do with abuse of discretion for denying 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss as does a hot dog. And yet, I can’t completely fault the majority because they have been left with so little guidance from Congress and the Supreme Court that any opinion they issue would have to invent “new” law. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and traditional standards of review are simply not well-designed to address death penalty appeals (particularly those on the eve of execution). Whatever one thinks of the value of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, someone has to clean up this mess or death penalty litigation will likely become even more procedurally absurd.

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