U.S. Supreme Court

Sotomayor voices concerns in case stemming from court staffer’s suicide note about pro se appeals

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Justice Sonia Sotomayor

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2009. Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons.

A court staffer’s suicide note and the response by an appeals court in Louisiana led U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to raise due process concerns in a statement Monday regarding cert denial in a prisoner’s case.

Sotomayor said she saw “serious due process concerns” with a review of cases spurred by the 2007 suicide note and its revelations about automatic dismissals of appeals filed by prisoners without lawyers.

Sotomayor nonetheless agreed with the decision to deny the pro se cert petition by prisoner Louie Schexnayder Jr., who was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Jerrold Peterson, the chief of central staff for Louisiana’s Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal, said in his suicide note that the appeals court had summarily denied appeals filed by people without attorneys for a 13-year period, according to Sotomayor, prior coverage by NOLA.com and Schexnayder’s cert petition.

Peterson reportedly said he prepared the rulings on petitions by inmates without representation, “and they were signed by a judge, without so much as a glance” at the underlying petitions or any review of the merits.

In response to this revelation, the Louisiana Supreme Court approved a review of hundreds of the dismissed pro se cases, to be conducted by judges from the same court that had summarily dismissed the prisoners’ filings. A dissenting judge said the review should be conducted by judges on other courts.

Sotomayor said the re-review process “raises serious due process concerns.”

Schexnayder had argued that his claims about the need for his trial judge to recuse herself were entitled to federal court review without deference given to state court decisions because Louisiana courts didn’t properly review his claim.

But Schexnayder didn’t clearly make the no-deference claim in prior proceedings, and cert denial was warranted, Sotomayor said.

“I expect that lower federal courts will examine the issue of what deference is due to these decisions when it is properly raised,” she wrote.

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