What Happened in Duncan v. Owens

Posted: February 15, 2016 by beguide in Criminal Procedure, Death Penalty, Uncategorized, Updates

Please note at this onset that this is just an educated guess as to what occurred in the Duncan v. Owens case, and it does not come from someone with inside information.  Also, independent of how you feel about his decisions, Rest in Peace, big guy.

Duncan v. Owens was granted review this term to determine whether or not the 7th Circuit had the authority to grant a habeas corpus petition on the grounds that the Judge did not agree with the judge’s inferences on motive that affected sentencing.  This case went to oral argument, but did not result in a full opinion.  Instead, the Court issued an order which dismissed the claim on the grounds that it was “improvidently granted”, thus affirming the lower decision without giving a full opinion.

The first step to take in understanding this decision, without further guidance from the Court, is to understand what it means for a case to be improvidently granted.  For a case to be presented before the Supreme Court, the Court has to grant a writ of certiorari, which allows them to review the lower decision.  To gain this writ of cert., four out of the nine justices must want to hear the case.  Once the writ is granted, the case becomes part of the docket.

A writ of cert does not, however, guarantee review.  The Court has a fairly limited view of the case when it is granted cert, so the Court’s opinion on the viability of the case can change as briefs and oral argument is held.  After hearing more on the issues, the Court may dismiss a case on the grounds that the arguments are not as clear as originally expected, or that the case was misrepresented in the original writ and become more clear after more information.  In those cases, the Court can dismiss the case as being improvidently granted.  Therefore, this is not a case where there was an error, but just that vetting the case out has rendered it less suitable for Constitutional review.

In Duncan v. Owens. the Court was presented with an issue of whether or not the 7th Circuit had acted inappropriately by granting habeas corpus on the grounds that the original decision was unjust and unconstitutional.  At the onset, the primary argument was that the 7th Circuit had actively violated precedent by granting this parties relief; however, the case focused on a more specific issue concerning the original order.  There was discussion during oral argument about the the specifics of the trial judge’s decision, in other words, was the lowest court’s decision clear enough to create a basis for the remaining argument.  Although the Court seemed in favor of the State in a general sense, the inability of either attorney to provide a clear statement on this issue likely caused the dismissal on procedural grounds.  Once again, this is not based on verified information, but just an assumption that the attorneys’ inability to answer this question caused the Court to dismiss the action without a full decision.

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