Habeas Corpus - Judge Chin's Nomination

By Habeas Corpus Blog
Jan 25, 2010

Read this paragraph:

The writ of habeas corpus-the “Great Writ”-has been described as the “highest safeguard of liberty.” Smith v. Bennett, 365 U.S. 708, 712, 81 S.Ct. 895, 6 L.Ed.2d 39 (1961). “[F]rom our very beginnings,” the writ has been a powerful remedy of last resort, the “[v]indication of due process [being] precisely its historic office.” Fay v. Noia, 372 U.S. 391, 401-02, 83 S.Ct. 822, 9 L.Ed.2d 837 (1963), abrogated on other grounds inKeeney v. Tamayo-Reyes, 504 U.S. 1, 112 S.Ct. 1715, 118 L.Ed.2d 318 (1992). This case serves as a reminder of its historic-and continued-importance.

-Morales v. Portuondo, 154 F.Supp.2d 706, 709 (SDNY 2001)

That's the opening paragraph of one of Judge Denny Chin's most well-known opinions. He is obviously a fan of habeas corpus.

Judge Chin, who currently sits in SDNY, is the second person that President Obama has nominated to the Second Circuit. The nomination has been pending for over six months now. He was unanimously approved by the Judiciary committee back in December, but the full Senate has not yet voted. Based on the glacial pace of Senate confirmations, who know when this vote will occur. At least it has given me time to work on this post. I know I have droned on about these delays in confirmations, but I don't appear to be the only one worked out about it.

Below the fold, I'll talk a little about Judge Chin's habeas work as well as his personal background. My overall assessment is that Judge Chin is a thoughtful and fair judge who has shown a willingness to grant habeas relief. Based on his work as a DJ, I believe he would make an excellent Second Circuit Judge.

Judge Chin was originally nominated to be a DJ by Clinton in 1994. As a sign of how different the process worked back then, he was confirmed only five months after he was nominated. He was the first Asian-American to sit as a federal judge outside of the Ninth Circuit.

The following personal info was taken from Wikipedia and the New York Times:

Chin was born in 1954 in Kowloon, Hong Kongand came to the U.S. in 1956 at the age of two. His mother worked as a seamstress and his father as a waiter. He graduated from Princeton University and then Fordham University School of Law. He clerked for Judge Henry Werker in the Southern District. In his legal career, he has worked at Davis Polk & Wardwell, Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard, P.C., and he started his own firm, Campbell, Patrick & Chin.

Judge Chin is most well-known for handling the Bernie Madoff case. A lot of media attention was showered upon him at the time he was assigned to the case. According to this Reuters article, Judge Chin has a great reputation in the legal community as a soft-spoken, witty judge who will do the "right thing" and is not afraid to make the "tough decisions."

That shows in his habeas opinions. Judge Chin has granted habeas relief at least five times in his fifteen years on the bench.

The most well-known of these opinions was the Morales case quoted at the beginning of this post. In that case, Judge Chin granted habeas relief to a man who had been wrongly convicted of a murder as a teen-ager. Soon after the murder, another teen-ager, Jesus Fornes, had confessed the crime to several different people, including his lawyer and his priest. He stated that petitioner and another individual who had been convicted did not commit the crime. The confessions were never presented to a jury. Many years later, after Fornes died, the attorney and the priest stepped forward and acknowledged that Fornes had confessed that he was the killer and Morales was not involved in the incident. Nevertheless, the state courts denied relief.

Judge Chin granted habeas relief, concluding that the petitioner's due process rights were violated because Morales had a right to present this evidence to a jury.* And Judge Chin went further. He stated that the statements represented "convincing evidence" that petitioner was "wrongly convicted and that, indeed, [he was] innocent." Judge Chin also granted habeas relief on the same grounds to Morales's co-defendant Montalvo in a later opinion. Montalvo v. Portuondo, 165 F.Supp.2d 601 (SDNY 2001).

Showing even more guts to make the hard decision, Judge Chin later ordered that Morales and Montalvo be released unconditionally. Morales v. Portuondo, 165 F.Supp.2d 601 (SDNY 2001). Here's what he said:

In the extraordinary circumstances of this case, I conclude that the proper remedy-the only just remedy-is the unconditional discharge of both Morales and Montalvo. Their convictions must be vacated and the District Attorney's Office precluded from re-trying them, for the following reasons. First, on the record before the Court, no reasonable jury could convict Morales or Montalvo of murder; indeed, the evidence strongly suggests that they are innocent. Second, Morales and Montalvo have been severely prejudiced by the passage of time; they have “served extended and potentially unjustified periods of incarceration” and their ability to defend against the charges in any new trial has been hampered, at least in some respects. In addition, certain aspects of the District Attorney's Office's handling of this matter are troubling; this is yet another consideration weighing against permitting a re-trial.

That's a bold decision. But the right one. Indeed, the State did not even appeal the decision to grant relief or the release order.

That decision received a bunch of media attention, mostly for the priest/confession angle (for example, here and here). But, in my mind, that was the easier part. The harder part was the bold step of ordering the unconditional release. It's not as sexy an angle for the media, but that's the bigger story in habeasland.

But Judge Chin is not a knee-jerk supporter of petitioners. There are examples where he could have been more generous to habeas petitioners, but wasn't. For example, he disagreed with a different DJ in the SDNY (Judge Sweet) that the statute of limitations violated the Suspension Clause (see my previous post about Sotomayor district court decisions for more details; Chin actually followed Sotomayor's reasoning on this issue). I will note though that Chin granted a COA in the opinion in which he disagreed. That always makes me happy.

And Chin also was very happy to dismiss several petitions as untimely under Peterson (also see my prior post about Sotomayor for more details on that one). In fact, he dismissed a bunch on the same day, almost as if he couldn't wait to be given the green light to do it. Some of those were reversed after Ross. And Chin reinstated a few upon petitioner's request. But some fell through the cracks, meaning that some petitioners had their petitioners improperly dismissed and untimely and then never had a federal court review the merits of the petition. Makes me a little annoyed.

But overall Chin really is a great choice to be elevated to the Second Circuit. He is willing to make the tough decisions and grant habeas where appropriate. He is fair and obviously super intelligent.

Now, let's hope the full Senate acts soon on his nomination. For that matter, let's hope Obama gets around the putting forth nominations for the other openings in the Second Circuit. There are plenty of qualified candidates out there.