Can a state refuse to honor a federal court writ?

May 8th, 2012

The 1st Circuit en banc, per Judge Boudin, says that Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee cannot refuse to hand over a prisoner to the feds who could be sentenced to death under the Federal Death Penalty Act.

That “a state has never had authority to dishonor an ad prosequendum writ issued by a federal court” is patent. Under the Supremacy Clause, U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2, the habeas statute– like any other valid federal measure–overrides any contrary position or preference of the state, a principle regularly and famously reaffirmed in civil rights cases, e.g., Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1, 18-19 (1958); United States v. Barnett, 376 U.S. 681 (1964), as in many other contexts, e.g., Washington v. Wash. State Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel Ass’n, 443 U.S. 658, 695-96 (1979). State interposition to defeat federal authority vanished with the Civil War. . . .

The Supremacy Clause operates in only one direction and has nothing to do with comity: it provides that Congress’ enactments are “the supreme Law of the Land . . . any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2. That there is an overriding federal interest in prosecuting defendants indicted on federal crimes needs no citation, and the habeas statute is an unqualified authorization for a federal court to insist that a defendant held elsewhere be produced for proceedings in a federal court.

The results of Rhode Island winning would be stark:

Were Pleau and Governor Chafee to prevail, Pleau could be permanently immune from federal prosecution, and the use of the efficient detainer system badly compromised. He is currently serving an 18-year term in Rhode Island prison and, if the writ were denied, might agree to a state sentence of life in Rhode Island for the robbery and murder.5 Even if Pleau served only his current 18-year term, needed witnesses for federal prosecution could be unavailable two decades from now. Instead of a place of confinement, the state prison would become a refuge against federal charges. Mauro forbids such a result.

This case unites disparate causes. Usually conservatives favor strong interpretations of states rights, and liberals favor a strong federal power. Here, liberals who oppose the death penalty turn to states rights to oppose the federal government.

Update: Garrett Epps writes further on liberalism and states rights, which intersect here:

A principled governor invoking “state’s rights” to defy federal policy. Aggressive local officials overriding state decisions. A federal court angrily affirming its own power. An anguished dissent attacking a power-hungry Congress.

United States v. Pleau has all the elements of a great federalism battle (including, by the way, largely symbolic stakes). But don’t expect to see Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee’s “state’s rights” stand hailed by Republican conservatives: Chafee is blocking the federal government in order to show his disapproval of the federal death penalty. The result, decided May 7 by the First Circuit Court of Appeals, is now in the Supreme Court’s in-basket. Pleau deals with important issues of policy, morality, and history. But because this is the United States, the language of the dispute is that of federalism—a pastime that Professors Edward L. Rubin and Malcolm Feeley once dubbed “a national neurosis.”