SCOTUS Rebukes Ninth Circuit for Interferring With California Parole Process

In Swarthourt v Cooke, Supreme Court No. 10-333, the Court granted certiorari on a rather boring question concerning habeas corpus law: “Whether a federal court may grant habeas corpus relief to a state prisoner based on its view that the state court erred in applying the state-law standard of evidentiary sufficiency governing state parole decisions.” The Court’s ruling (rendered without oral) arguments maybe a near hands off declaration by the Supreme Court on state parole decionmarking.

The Ninth Circuit found that California’s statute created a liberty interest in a parole. The Court found that this liberty interest conveyed only very basic protections: (a) the ability of the prisoner to appear and present arguments for a parole; (b) to have notice of the evidence against him/her; (c) the right to inspect this evidence (subject to limitations), and (c) the right to a statement of reasons against him/her.
The Court dropped a hint that it might be willing to reconsider the federal law on the subject about whether state law can even create a liberty interest in favor of parole. The Court said: “the Ninth Circuit held that California law creates a liberty interest in parole, see 606 F. 3d, at 1213. While we have no need to review that holding here, it is a reasonable application of our cases.” The Court, then, however noted that the four pieces of the due process outlined above “should have been the beginning and the end of the federal habeas courts’ inquiry into whether Cooke and Clay received due process.”

Most ominously, the Court declared: “The short of the matter is that the responsibility for assuring that the constitutionally adequate procedures governing California’s parole system are properly applied rests with California courts,and is no part of the Ninth Circuit’s business.”