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Supreme Court says state prisoners have no constitutional right to parole

In reversing the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for the third time in a week, the justices say the appeals court was wrong to second-guess the California parole board and the state courts for denying parole to a man convicted of attempted murder.

January 25, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
  • Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco wrote three opinions that were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court this week.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco… (Jamie Rector, For The Times )

Reporting from Washington — Unanimously reversing the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for the third time in a week, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that state prisoners have no constitutional right to be paroled.

The decision rebuked the San Francisco-based appeals court for ordering the parole of several inmates who had been convicted of murder or attempted murder.

All three of the opinions overturned in the past week were written by veteran liberal Judge Stephen Reinhardt from Los Angeles.

In Monday's decision, the justices said Reinhardt and the 9th Circuit were wrong to second-guess the California parole board and the state courts for denying parole to Damon Cooke of Los Angeles, who was convicted of the attempted murder of a friend in Berkeley in 1991.

Cooke was given a term of up to life in prison, and the parole board said he "would pose an unreasonable risk to society if released from prison."

Cooke appealed and lost in the state courts, but last year, Reinhardt and the 9th Circuit said parole officials did not have enough evidence to justify denying him parole.

The California attorney general's office appealed and, without hearing arguments in the case, the Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit in an unsigned opinion.

"There is no right under the federal Constitution to be conditionally released before the expiration of a valid sentence, and the states are under no duty to offer parole to their prisoners," the justices said in Swarthout vs. Cooke. "That should have been the beginning and the end" of the matter in the federal courts.

California prosecutors said that since Reinhardt's ruling last June, several dozen state inmates had won parole from federal judges, and several hundred more appeals were pending.

In the two rulings last week, the justices said the 9th Circuit was wrong to reverse the convictions of two men who had been convicted of murders many years before. Reinhardt's opinions faulted the men's defense lawyers.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the court, made clear his irritation with the 9th Circuit for being so willing to reverse the state courts in criminal cases.

"Confidence in the writ [of habeas corpus] and the law it vindicates [is] undermined if there is a judicial disregard for the sound and established principles that inform its proper issuance. That judicial disregard is inherent in the opinion of the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit," said Kennedy, who was a 9th Circuit judge prior to joining the high court in 1988.

Still pending before the high court is California's appeal of a three-judge ruling that would require the state to release as many as 40,000 inmates to relieve overcrowding. Reinhardt was one of the three judges who handed down the disputed order.

In other decisions Monday, the justices slightly expanded the protections granted by the Civil Rights Act, saying that if a person complains of discrimination, their relatives and close friends are shielded from retaliation.

In the case before the court, Miriam Regalado accused her employer of sex discrimination. Three weeks later, her fiance, fellow employee Eric Thompson, was fired. Thompson sued his employer under the part of the Civil Rights Act that forbids retaliation for filing a complaint, but the U.S. appeals court in Cincinnati ruled he was not covered by the law.

The high court unanimously disagreed in Thompson vs. North American Stainless. "Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote.

The justices also restored a $625,000 verdict won by a female prisoner in Ohio who said two prison officials had refused to protect her from a repeat sexual assault by a guard.

By a 9-0 vote, the justices faulted the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati for tossing out the verdict after the jury ruled for Michelle Ortiz.

The court of appeals "had no warrant to upset the jury's decision," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.

david.savage@latimes.com

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