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Discretionary Procedural Rulings In Appellate Matters Are Not Automatically Inadequate For the Purposes of the Adequate State Ground Doctrine

In answering the question of whether discretionary procedural rulings are “automatically inadequate” to bar federal habeas corpus review, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that a state procedural rule is not automatically “inadequate” under the adequate state ground doctrine because the state rule is discretionary rather than mandatory. ﴾Beard v. Kindler ﴾Dec. 8, 2009﴿ 08-992, 2009 U.S. LEXIS 8944﴿.

Under the adequate state ground doctrine, a federal habeas court will not review a claim rejected by a state court if the decision of the state court rests on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment. Federal courts frame the adequacy inquiry by asking whether the state rule was “firmly established and regularly followed.” The Third Circuit determined that since state courts had discretion to hear an appeal filed by the fugitive, meaning that courts could apply procedural rule in one case and deny its application in another, the Pennsylvania fugitive forfeiture law was not “firmly established” because it was not consistently applied in the majority of cases.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in a case of a fugitive from justice, who had been convicted of capital murder in Pennsylvania state court and escaped to Canada at the time when the trial court was considering his post-verdict motion challenging defendant’s conviction and sentence. The trial court subsequently dismissed Kindler’s post-verdict motions because of his escape. Once recaptured and brought to the United States, the defendant sought to reinstate his post-verdict motion.

Although the Supreme Court has recognized that many states would opt for the mandatory rule to avoid the high costs that come with discretionary review, a discretionary state procedural rule can serve as an adequate ground to bar federal habeas review because nothing inherent in such a rule renders it inadequate for purposes of the adequate state ground doctrine. To the contrary, a discretionary rule can be “firmly established” and “regularly followed” even if the appropriate exercise of discretion may permit consideration of a federal claim in some cases but not others.

The Court has concluded that given the federalism and comity concerns motivating the adequate state ground doctrine in the habeas context, the High Court should not disregard discretionary state procedural rules that are in place in nearly every state and are substantially similar to those given full force in federal courts.

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