A Bit of Cloud Over Shackling, but Also Some Silver Linings

December 19, 2017
By Hanging Out with Carl Gunn

BLOG BULLETS:

  • The Supreme Court has granted a petition for writ of certiorari in the Ninth Circuit Sanchez-Gomez case holding judges can’t shackle defendants in even non-jury proceedings without a showing of a real need for shackling.
  • The Court granted the petition only on the question of mootness, however; it denied the petition to review the substantive question.
  • This grant of cert does not mean district courts can start ignoring Sanchez-Gomez, moreover; Ninth Circuit case law holds a district court can’t refuse to follow precedent simply because it wants to wait for the Supreme Court’s ruling on the precedent.

 

NOW THE BLOG:

You’ll hopefully recall – and be doing everything you can to enforce – the Ninth Circuit’s holding in United States v. Sanchez-Gomez, 859 F.3d 649 (9th Cir. 2017) (en banc), which I’ve blogged about several times in the past.  (See “If You Haven’t Already, You Can Sure Throw Off Those Chains Now,” in the June 2017 link at the right, and “Mandamus Them if They Won’t Throw Off the Chains,” in the July 2017 link).  Sanchez-Gomez held defendants can’t be shackled in even non-jury court proceedings without specific findings of a real need for shackling.

Well, there’s a little bit of a cloud that’s blown in, but it has a silver lining.  The Supreme Court has granted a petition for writ of certiorari in Sanchez-Gomez so it’s going to be reviewed either late this term or early next term.  That’s the cloud, but there is a silver lining – actually a couple for now.  First, the Court granted the petition only on the procedural question of whether the court of appeals lacked jurisdiction because the individual defendants’ cases had ended and thus the question of shackling was moot for those individual defendants at the time of the court of appeals decision.  The Court refused to grant the petition on the additional question the government presented in its petition – whether the Ninth Circuit’s substantive holding was erroneous.  So there won’t be a Supreme Court decision rejecting the Ninth Circuit’s substantive holding that defendants can’t be shackled in non-jury court proceedings without specific findings of a need for shackling.

Second, and very important for now, district courts in the Ninth Circuit remain bound by Sanchez-Gomez until and unless the Supreme Court vacates it.  Even if an eventual adverse Supreme Court ruling on mootness grounds would affect the binding nature of the substantive holding, which might be debatable, the mere grant of cert doesn’t mean district courts are no longer bound.  This is established by Ninth Circuit case law cited in the opinion granting the Arizona Federal Public Defender’s petition for writ of mandamus that was the subject of the second of the posts noted in the first paragraph above.  (See the follow-up post about that opinion in “An Update on Mandamusing Them if They Won’t Throw Off the Chains,” in the September 2017 link at the right.)  That case law states that “once a federal circuit court issues a decision, the district courts within that circuit are bound to follow it and have no authority to await a ruling by the Supreme Court before applying the circuit court’s decision as binding authority.”  Yong v. I.N.S., 208 F.3d 1116, 1119 n.2 (9th Cir. 2000), quoted in In re Zermeno-Gomez, 868 F.3d 1048, 1052 (9th Cir. 2017).  (Thanks to Dan Kaplan, chief of the appellate unit of the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Arizona for pointing this out.)

So keep pushing for unshackling even if your district judge brings up the Supreme Court cert grant.  Until the Supreme Court says differently, the judge is bound to follow the Ninth Circuit holding in Sanchez-Gomez.