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MAGGIO, WARDEN v. FULFORD
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT
Decided June 6, 1983
After respondent's murder conviction was affirmed by the Louisiana Supreme Court, and after he had exhausted state postconviction remedies, he was denied habeas corpus relief in Federal District Court. The Court of Appeals reversed, apparently holding that, under 28 U.S.C. 2254(d) (8), the state trial court's determination that respondent was competent to stand trial was not "fairly supported by the record." The state court had denied respondent's motion for appointment of a competency commission, which motion was filed on the morning of trial and was supported solely by a psychiatrist's testimony - based upon a brief prison cell interview on the preceding day - that respondent had paranoid delusions that rendered him incompetent to stand trial, respondent having said that he was withholding from his counsel the names of alibi witnesses for fear that they would be arrested and prevented from testifying.
The Court of Appeals erroneously substituted its own judgment as to the credibility of witnesses for that of the Louisiana courts - a prerogative which 28 U.S.C. 2254 does not allow it. The trial judge's conclusion as to respondent's competency was "fairly supported by the record," which showed that the judge based his conclusion on, inter alia, his observation of respondent's conduct both before and during trial; his inferences regarding the fact that respondent's alleged refusalto disclose his alibi witnesses either never occurred or was remedied; and his conclusion that respondent's surprise, 11th-hour motion for appointment of a competency commission was merely a subterfuge to attempt to obtain a severance to avoid being tried with codefendants.
Certiorari granted; 692 F.2d 354, reversed.
Respondent John Fulford was found guilty of murder by a Louisiana jury in 1972. His conviction was affirmed on appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, State v. Nix, 327 So.2d 301 (1975), and, after exhausting state postconviction remedies, he sought federal habeas corpus relief. The [462 U.S. 111, 112] United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana denied relief, App. to Pet. for Cert. A-21, but the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that "we cannot, with the certitude befitting a federal court, affirm that Fulford possessed the mental competency to participate meaningfully in his trial." 692 F.2d 354, 361 (1982) (footnote omitted). We grant the motion of respondent for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for certiorari, and reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
The bone of contention in this case was respondent's competency to stand trial more than 11 years ago. On the morning of trial respondent's counsel moved to appoint a commission to inquire into respondent's competency to stand trial. 1 At the same time counsel moved for a severance. Neither counsel nor respondent had previously broached the question of competency, and nothing appears in the record which suggests that respondent had a history of mental or emotional difficulties. 2 The sole evidence submitted in support of respondent's motion for appointment of a competency commission was the testimony of one Dr. McCray, a local psychiatrist. Until the morning immediately preceding trial, McCray had never seen, nor, so far as the record reveals, [462 U.S. 111, 113] heard of, respondent. Based upon a prison cell interview of approximately one hour the day before trial, McCray testified in the following fashion, as summarized by the Court of Appeals:
The Louisiana trial judge explained his refusal to order a competency hearing in two per curiam opinions, which contained the following factual findings relevant to his decision. First, the trial judge was convinced that respondent was "oriented as to time, date and place and was cognizant of everything around him." 692 F.2d, at 360. The judge further noted that Fulford's conduct during and after the trial "thoroughly convinced" him that respondent was competent and able to assist in his defense. The trial judge did not "deem it necessary to fill in all the other matters that appeared throughout the trial and all of the post-trial motions that have [462 U.S. 111, 114] been filed because the record will adequately represent this fact." 4 Record 953. As set out in the margin, there is substantial support for the trial judge's statement. 3 Third, the trial judge concluded that the only basis advanced by McCray for his tentative conclusion that respondent suffered from [462 U.S. 111, 115] paranoid delusions - respondent's failure to inform his lawyers of the identities of two alibi witnesses - was unfounded. These two witnesses testified in respondent's behalf less than a week after Fulford convinced McCray that he was withholding the identities of his alibi witnesses. As the Louisiana Supreme Court observed, "it is clear that Mr. Fulford did not withhold the names of his witnesses, and was able to assist his counsel in the preparation and conduct of his defense." 327 So.2d, at 324.
Most importantly for our purposes, the trial judge concluded that respondent's surprise, 11th-hour motion for appointment of a competency commission "was just a subterfuge on the part of this defendant to attempt to keep from going to trial so that he would be tried at a different time from the other defendants." Ibid. The trial judge explained:
The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed, relying on the arguments advanced by the trial judge, and noting that his "findings are amply supported by the record." 327 So.2d, at 324. The Supreme Court of Louisiana also observed that the trial judge had the "ability . . . to observe Mr. Fulford at length during the preliminary hearings and the trial of this case." Ibid. It also took note of the "limited time" that Dr. McCray spent with respondent.
The Court of Appeals apparently found all of this unpersuasive. There is no dispute as to the proper legal standard to be applied for determining the correctness of the trial court's actions, see Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 386 (1966); Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162 (1975). Thus, the three judges of the Court of Appeals appear to have differed from the Louisiana trial judge, the seven Justices of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, and the Federal District Judge, only with respect to evaluation of the evidence before the trial court. The principal explanation offered by the Court of Appeals for its refusal to accept the previous judicial assessments of this testimony are contained in the following excerpt from its opinion:
The Court of Appeals apparently concluded that the trial judge was obligated to credit both the factual statements and [462 U.S. 111, 118] the ultimate conclusions of Dr. McCray solely because he was "unimpeached." 692 F.2d, at 361. This is simply not the law.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is accordingly
Likewise, Art. 643 provides that the "trial court may, in the exercise of its sound discretion, order a mental examination of the defendant when it has reasonable ground to doubt the defendant's mental capacity to proceed."
[ Footnote 2 ] In his motion for appointment of a competency commission, respondent's counsel alleged: "It has further been reported to counsel that the defendant has been placed before a lunacy commission in the State of Florida in 1953, and was declared a borderline case. . . . [T]he aforesaid report is of this date unconfirmed and counsel had requested a record check in the State of Florida to determine if such a hearing had been convened and the result thereof." 4 Record 933. The record contains no other mention of this incident, much less confirmation of the allegation.
[ Footnote 3 ] For example, two days after he moved for appointment of a competency commission, respondent informed the trial judge that "I can defend myself, and that is the point I'd like to get across." Likewise, at a sentencing hearing in January 1974 Fulford sought permission to pursue appeal of his conviction pro se. After the presiding judge expressed reluctance at permitting this, because of Fulford's earlier assertion of incompetence, Fulford stated:
As the pleadings and briefs filed by respondent in state and federal courts indicate, his legal abilities are scarcely those of a mental incompetent. As one member of the Louisiana Supreme Court has observed, respondent "has demonstrated skill and experience in criminal law in writ applications filed in this Court." State v. Fulford, 299 So.2d 789 (1974) (Nixon, J., dissenting).
JUSTICE WHITE, concurring in the judgment.
The "fairly supported by the record" standard of 28 U.S.C. 2254(d)(8) applies only to underlying questions of background fact. Questions of law, and mixed questions of law and fact, such as the "ultimate question as to the constitutionality of . . . pretrial identification procedures," Sumner v. Mata, 455 U.S. 591, 597 (1982), or the question whether a guilty plea is voluntary for purposes of the Constitution, Marshall v. Lonberger, 459 U.S. 422, 431 -432 (1983), may be reviewed more independently. In deciding such questions, "the federal court may give different weight to the facts as found by the state court and may reach a different conclusion in light of the legal standard." Mata, 455 U.S., at 597 . But only the "fact[s] that underlie th[e] ultimate conclusion" are governed by 2254(d)(8). Ibid.
Our cases have treated the ultimate question whether a defendant is competent to stand trial as at least a mixed [462 U.S. 111, 119] question of law and fact. Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 174 -175, 175, n. 10 (1975); Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 385 -386 (1966). See also White v. Estelle, 459 U.S. 1118 (1983) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari). Our precedents notwithstanding, the Court today reverses the Court of Appeals on the strength of the conclusion that "the trial court's conclusion as to Fulford's competency was `fairly supported by the record.'" Ante, at 117. But since competency is not a purely factual question, 2254(d)(8) and its "fairly supported" standard are inapplicable. The Court offers no explanation whatsoever for the failure to follow Drope and Pate, and it would certainly not be appropriate to overrule these cases summarily. If there is any doubt as to the proper classification of the competency question, we should grant certiorari and set this case for oral argument.
Since the Court opts in favor of summary action, however, I cast my vote accordingly. Absent plenary reconsideration of Drope and Pate, I cannot agree with the Court that competency is a question of historical fact and is to be treated as such by the courts of appeals in reviewing district court judgments in criminal cases or by the district courts in federal habeas corpus proceedings involving state-court convictions. However, I agree with the Court's ultimate conclusion that the judgment of the Court of Appeals must be reversed.
The Court details the undisputed background facts that support the trial judge's conclusion that there was insufficient question as to Fulford's competence to warrant appointment of a competency commission: "Fulford's conduct, both prior to and during trial; . . . the fact that Fulford's alleged refusal to disclose his alibi witnesses either never occurred, or was remedied; . . . the unannounced, last-minute timing of the motion for appointment of a competency commission; and . . . the failure of the defense to pursue psychiatric examination beyond the `tentative' stage, despite ample time and opportunity to do so." Ante, at 117. Dr. McCray's testimony, on the other hand, indicated that there was a genuine [462 U.S. 111, 120] doubt as to Fulford's competency, but, as the Court points out, ante, at 117-118, the trial court was under no obligation to credit this testimony, and it did not do so. Hence, even considering the ultimate competency question as a freely reviewable pure question of law, I conclude that the trial judge's refusal to appoint a commission did not deprive Fulford of his federal constitutional rights, and I therefore concur in the judgment.
JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE STEVENS joins, dissenting.
I agree with JUSTICE WHITE and JUSTICE MARSHALL that 2254(d) does not apply to questions of competency. I also agree with JUSTICE MARSHALL that it is entirely inappropriate to dispose of this case on nothing more than the necessarily limited briefing filed by the parties to date. I do not agree, however, with JUSTICE MARSHALL'S suggestion that we might decide the case with further briefing but not oral argument. Accepting the majority's premise that this case merits this Court's attention at all, I would grant the petition for certiorari and set the case for argument.
JUSTICE MARSHALL, dissenting.
The Court is simply wrong in assuming that 28 U.S.C. 2254(d) applies to the question whether there is "a sufficient doubt of [the defendant's] competence to stand trial to require further inquiry on the question." Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 180 (1975). Our decisions clearly establish that whether a competence hearing should have been held is a mixed question of law and fact which is subject to full federal review. Id., at 174-175, 179-181; Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 385 -386 (1966).
Even if the Court were correct in assuming that 28 U.S.C. 2254(d) (8) applies, there would be no justification for the Court's summary disposition of this case. This Court's Rules [462 U.S. 111, 121] governing petitions for certiorari were designed to help elicit the information necessary to decide whether review by certiorari is warranted. They were not designed to permit a decision on the merits on the basis of the certiorari papers.
In particular, Rule 22.2 states that "a brief in opposition shall be as short as possible." In compliance with this Rule the indigent respondent filed a mimeographed brief in opposition of seven pages, a substantial portion of which is devoted to the argument that the petition presents no question worthy of review by this Court - an argument that might well have been expected to prevail given the traditional learning that this Court "is not, and never has been, primarily concerned with the correction of errors in lower court decisions." 1 Only a few paragraphs of the brief in opposition discuss the record. 2
If the Court is to decide whether the record supports the trial court's conclusion that no competence hearing was necessary, it should at least afford the parties a chance to brief that issue. This could be done by merely issuing an order (1) noting that the case will be disposed of without oral argument and (2) permitting both sides to file briefs on the merits. I do not think this is asking too much.
[ Footnote 1 ] Address by Chief Justice Vinson Before American Bar Association, Sept. 7, 1949, 69 S. Ct. v, vi (1949).
[ Footnote 2 ] With the full resources of a sovereign State, petitioner filed a printed petition for certiorari plus a full printed appendix. Petitioner's papers were signed by the State Attorney General, the District Attorney, and two Assistant District Attorneys. [462 U.S. 111, 122]