During Thomas Joe Miller-El's murder trial, Texas prosecutors used their peremptory challenges to eliminate 10 of the 11 potential African-American jurors. Miller-El, a black man, was later convicted and sentenced to death. And for the next 17 years he tried challenging the fairness of a trial before a jury stripped of African-Americans. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court finally gave him a friendly ear.
In an 8-to-1 ruling, the court said Miller-El's claims of discrimination should get a hearing. The court did not grant him a new trial, just an opportunity to question whether his initial trial was fair.
The decision in Miller-El vs. Cockrell could have widespread implications for prisoners both on and off death row. The court directed federal appellate courts to be more generous to prisoners who are challenging the constitutionality of their trials. In effect, the high court reasserted the role of federal courts in policing the fairness and legality of state court proceedings.
The question before the court involved its interpretation of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Congress passed the law because it was tired of the way death row inmates were using habeas corpus in what it viewed as frivolous challenges. The law sets up roadblocks to habeas petitions, one of these being an end to the automatic right of a prisoner to appeal a denial of habeas relief in a federal district court. Inmates who seek to appeal the lower court's judgment must first obtain a "certificate of appealability." Various federal appeals courts, including the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that covers Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, had set a high bar before granting a certificate, essentially requiring the inmate to prove the merits of his case.
In a decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court reminded the lower federal courts that a certificate of appealability is not the same as an inquiry into the merits of a habeas petition. The court said a certificate should be granted whenever the constitutional claim being made by the inmate has a reasonable basis, not necessarily a winning one.
Opening federal appellate courts to more claims by inmates will reintroduce a layer of review and scrutiny to state court processes that has been missing in recent years. The court's decision was a victory for fairness for Miller-El and the justice system as a whole.