BELL v. THOMPSON

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
04-514
Petitioner 
Ricky Bell, Warden
Respondent 
Gregory Thompson
Advocates
(argued the cause for Respondent)
(argued the cause for Petitioner)
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Facts of the Case 

A Tennessee trial court sentenced Thompson to death for murder. Thompson made unsuccesful appeals in state court based on the claim that his counsel had failed to adequately investigate his mental health. A federal district court also rejected Thompson's petition based on that claim. However, Thompson's habeas counsel had failed to include in the record the deposition and report of a psychologist who argued Thompson had suffered from serious mental illness. The counsel included the documents when Thompson appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which nevertheless dismissed Thompson's claim. Thompson then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Sixth Circuit stayed its mandate until the Court decided whether to hear the case. The Court denied the petition, but the Sixth Circuit stayed its mandate again, pending the Supreme Court's decision on Thompson's petition for rehearing, which the Court denied. The Sixth Circuit still did not issue its mandate. Five months later, Tennessee had set Thompson's execution date. The Sixth Circuit suddenly issued an amended opinion on Thompson's habeas petition, overturning the district court's dismissal of his ineffective counsel claim and ordering hearings based on that claim. The Sixth Circuit included in the appeal record the initially ommitted psychologist deposition. The circuit court argued its authority to issue an amended opinion five months after the Supreme Court denied Thompson's petition was based on its inherent power to reconsider an opinion before issuance of the the mandate.

Question 

After the U.S. Supreme Court had denied certiorari and a petition for rehearing to a death-row prisoner's case, did the Sixth Circuit abuse its discretion by withholding its mandate in the case for more than five months without entering a formal order?

Conclusion 
Decision: 5 votes for Bell, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, including Appellate Procedure (or relevant rules of a circuit court)

Yes. In a 5-4 opinion delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court held that the Sixth Circuit abused its discretion by withholding its mandate and not releasing its amended opinion for more than five months after the Supreme Court's final say in the case. The Sixth Circuit cost the state and the parties significant time and resources by not providing notification that it was reconsidering its decision. Further, the Sixth Circuit had the opportunity at the rehearing stage to consider the same mental health arguments it later adopted. Moreover, the evidence and its ommission did not warrant the court's "extraordinary departure from standard procedures." By withholding its mandate for months, the Court said, the Sixth Circuit failed to give the "appropriate level of respect" to Tennessee's judgment that Thompson deserved death. Notably, the Court declined to consider the scope of the appellate courts' Federal Appellate Procedure 41 authority to stay a mandate following a denial of certioarari.

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BELL v. THOMPSON. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 17 October 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2004/2004_04_514>.
BELL v. THOMPSON, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2004/2004_04_514 (last visited October 17, 2014).
"BELL v. THOMPSON," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed October 17, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2004/2004_04_514.