Miller-El v. Cockrell
537 U.S. 322 (2003)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 2002

Syllabus

MILLER-EL v. COCKRELL, DIRECTOR, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE, INSTITUTIONAL DIVISION

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

No. 01-7662. Argued October 16, 2002-Decided February 25, 2003

When Dallas County prosecutors used peremptory strikes to exclude 10 of the 11 Mrican-Americans eligible to serve on the jury at petitioner's capital murder trial, he moved to strike the jury on the ground that the exclusions violated equal protection. Petitioner presented extensive evidence supporting his motion at a pretrial hearing, but the trial judge denied relief, finding no evidence indicating a systematic exclusion of blacks, as was required by the then-controlling precedent, Swain v. Alabama, 380 U. S. 202. Subsequently, the jury found petitioner guilty, and he was sentenced to death. While his appeal was pending, this Court established, in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79, a three-part process for evaluating equal protection claims such as petitioner's. Upon remand from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for new findings in light of Batson, the original trial court held a hearing at which it admitted all the Swain hearing evidence and took further evidence, but concluded that petitioner failed to satisfy step one of Batson because the evidence did not even raise an inference of racial motivation in the State's use of peremptory challenges. The court also determined that the State would have prevailed on steps two and three because the prosecutors had proffered credible, race-neutral explanations for the African-Americans excluded-i. e., their reluctance to assess, or reservations concerning, imposition of the death penalty-such that petitioner could not prove purposeful discrimination. Mter petitioner's direct appeal and state habeas petitions were denied, he filed a federal habeas petition under 28 U. S. C. § 2254, raising a Batson claim and other issues. The Federal District Court denied relief in deference to the state courts' acceptance of the prosecutors' race-neutral justifications for striking the potential jurors, and subsequently denied petitioner's § 2253 application for a certificate of appealability (COA). The Fifth Circuit noted that a COA will issue "only if the applicant has made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right," § 2253(c)(2); reasoned that a petitioner must make such a "substantial showing" under the standard set forth in Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U. S. 473; de-


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clared that § 2254(d)(2) required it to presume state-court findings correct unless it determined that the findings would result in a decision which was unreasonable in light of clear and convincing evidence; and applied this framework to deny petitioner a COA.

Petitioner's extensive evidence concerning the jury selection procedures falls into two broad categories. First, he presented, at the pretrial Swain hearing, testimony and other evidence relating to a pattern and practice of race discrimination in the voir dire by the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, including a 1976 policy by that office to exclude minorities from jury service that was available at least to one of petitioner's prosecutors. Second, two years later, petitioner presented, to the same state trial court, evidence that directly related to the prosecutors' conduct in his case, including a comparative analysis of the venire members demonstrating that Mrican-Americans were excluded from petitioner's jury in a ratio significantly higher than Caucasians; evidence that, during voir dire, the prosecution questioned venire members in a racially disparate fashion as to their death penalty views, their willingness to serve on a capital case, and their willingness to impose the minimum sentence for murder, and that responses disclosing reluctance or hesitation to impose capital punishment or a minimum sentence were cited as a justification for striking potential jurors; and the prosecution's use of a Texas criminal procedure practice known as "jury shuffling" to assure that white venire members were selected in preference to Mrican-Americans.

Held: The Fifth Circuit should have issued a COA to review the District Court's denial of habeas relief to petitioner. Pp. 335-348.

(a) Before a prisoner seeking postconviction relief under § 2254 may appeal a district court's denial or dismissal of the petition, he must first seek and obtain a COA from a circuit justice or judge, § 2253. This is a jurisdictional prerequisite. A COA will issue only if § 2253's requirements have been satisfied. When a habeas applicant seeks a COA, the court of appeals should limit its examination to a threshold inquiry into the underlying merit of his claims. E. g., Slack, 529 U. S., at 481. This inquiry does not require full consideration of the factual or legal bases supporting the claims. Consistent with this Court's precedent and the statutory text, the prisoner need only demonstrate "a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right." § 2253(c)(2). He satisfies this standard by demonstrating that jurists of reason could disagree with the district court's resolution of his case or that the issues presented were adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed furthe~ E. g., id., at 484. He need not convince a judge, or, for that matter, three judges, that he will prevail, but must demonstrate that reasonable


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Full Text of Opinion

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