Federal Courts Exam 2019: Sorry, No Fake Tweets on this One

by Michael C. Dorf

Per my custom this time of year, I provide below my Federal Courts exam. I apologized to my students that it is not as funny as some of my prior ones, although I think the issues it raises are just as challenging and important as those raised by prior exams.  I did not have the urge this time to create a fake Trump tweet.

Students were given 8 hours to complete the open-book take-home exam. As usual, blog readers should feel free to submit answers (which I won't grade) in the comments.

The following applies to all questions:

            Following President Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives and acquittal by the Senate, scrutiny in the Senate focuses on the business dealings of Hunter Biden in Ukraine and in the House focuses on the business dealings of Ivanka Trump in China. Intensive political negotiations ensue, leading to a compromise. Congress passes and President Trump signs omnibus legislation that funds the government through January 2021, raises the debt ceiling, declares the severability of the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act from the rest of the Act, provides statutory protection for the so-called Dreamers and partial funding for a border wall, and, as relevant here, contains a subsection titled the Madisonian Compromise Restoration And Protective Jurisdiction Act (MCRAPJA). MCRAPJA states in relevant part: 

(101)         Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no court of the United States shall have jurisdiction to issue a writ of habeas corpus or its equivalent, or to review a decision to grant or deny a writ of habeas corpus, on behalf of any habeas petitioner in custody pursuant to a criminal conviction if the petitioner is in custody within the territory of any State of the United States.

(102)         If a person in custody within a State of the United States files a habeas petition or its equivalent in a state court of general jurisdiction raising a federal constitutional claim, the state court shall entertain the petition.

(103)         In a proceeding described by § 102 of this Act, the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 2241 and (as appropriate) either § 2254 or § 2255, as well as applicable case law, shall apply as though the state court were a federal court.

(104)         To prevent politically motivated harassment of the First and Second Families of the United States, notwithstanding any other provision of law except for 28 U.S.C. § 1391, the federal district courts shall have original and exclusive jurisdiction of any civil or criminal action brought against a current or former President of the United States, Vice President of the United States, or spouse or child of a current or former President of the United States or Vice President of the United States, regardless of the domicile of the parties, the amount in controversy, or the jurisdiction whose laws give rise to the claims or defenses. All such defendants referred to in this Section are hereby granted the capacity to be sued in all courts of the United States, and they retain whatever immunities the Constitution, laws, and federal common law confer. 

Question 1

In November 2011, when Jerome Jones was 17 years old, he shot and killed his high school English teacher after receiving what he thought was an unfair grade of B+ on his paper on Of Mice and Men. James was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in Hughes Superior Court. The jury found that there were “special factors” warranting a severe sentence and no such special factors warranting leniency. Had James been 18 or older, he would have been eligible for the death penalty under Hughes law, but because he was a juvenile, he was sentenced to mandatory life without parole (LWOP) pursuant to the then-operative state law.

On appeal to the state intermediate court of appeals and to the Hughes Supreme Court, James argued that mandatory LWOP was cruel and unusual punishment. The Hughes Supreme Court rejected his argument, explaining that “LWOP is the price juveniles pay for the protection that Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), affords them against the death penalty.” His conviction became final on June 18, 2012.

As you know, on June 25, 2012, the US Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 560, holding that mandatory LWOP for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. Jones filed a petition for state habeas on August 1, 2012, raising eleven grounds for relief, including a renewal of his argument that mandatory LWOP for a juvenile is unconstitutional. Because of the complexity of some of the other claims for relief and the unexpected death of the judge to whom the petition was originally assigned, the state habeas petition was still pending when Congress enacted MCRAPJA.

The case is now before Hughes State Superior Court Judge Kim Stanley, who plans to reject all of James’ other claims but is uncertain how to proceed on the Miller claim. You are Judge Stanley’s law clerk. She tells you that if it were not for MCRAPJA, she would rule in favor of Jones on his Miller claim, in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). However, she believes that MCRAPJA makes 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) applicable and that it bars relief.

Judge Stanley has asked her other law clerk to write a memo addressing the question whether MCRAPJA applies to state habeas petitions filed before its enactment. She asks you to assume that the answer to that question is yes. She asks that you write her a memo assessing whether MCRAPJA prevents her from granting Jones parole eligibility on the basis of Miller/Montgomery, and if so, whether that result is unconstitutional.

Question 2

            Judge Stanley asks you for another memo. This one concerns a habeas petition by Francis Stevenson, whose federal court conviction for bank robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113 became final on November 21, 2019. Stevenson, who is currently housed in federal prison in Hughes City, Hughes, argues in his habeas petition that the government failed to disclose exculpatory evidence pre-trial and that his trial counsel was ineffective. Judge Stanley worries that her court lacks the power to grant a habeas petition by a prisoner in federal custody. Does her court have that power? 

Question 3

            Your clerkship with Judge Stanley is over and you have landed a job in the litigation department of a New York City law firm. One of its clients is Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former President Bill Clinton.

Ms. Clinton lives in Manhattan. Last week she was sued in New York State Supreme Court for defamation by Clean So Clean (CSC), a dry-cleaning business in her neighborhood. CSC is a sole proprietorship owned by Angela Ramos, a U.S. citizen who has lived for the last thirty-seven years in Queens, N.Y. According to the complaint, which seeks $5 million in damages, Ms. Clinton “publicly, falsely, and maliciously accused CSC of staining and thus ruining a linen jacket,” and “because of defendant’s standing in the community, this false accusation has, in a bitter irony, stained and thus ruined CSC’s reputation and business.” 

            The partner tells you that Ms. Clinton denies she did anything more than “gently and quietly point out a few spots that were on my jacket when I got it back but not there when I brought it in to CSC.” She does not want to settle the case for fear that doing so would encourage further meritless lawsuits. The partner asks you to write a memo assessing the likelihood of successfully removing the case to the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York pursuant to MCRAPJA § 104. Assume that CSC will argue that MCRAPJA § 104 is unconstitutional. In addition to considering the case as filed, address whether removal would be permissible if Clinton brings a counterclaim alleging that Ramos’s statement published in the New York Post that “Chelsea is a liar and a bully” is defamatory, given the likelihood that Ramos would raise a First Amendment “public figure” defense under the NY Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), line of cases.

Write the memo.

End of Exam