Gary Swarthout, Warden V. Damon Cooke


Respondent Damon Cooke was convicted of attempted first-degree murder, and a California court sentenced him to an indeterminate term of seven years to life in prison with the possibility of parole. In November 2002, the board determined that Cooke was not yet suitable for parole, basing its decision on the “especially cruel and callous manner” of his commitment offense; his failure to participate fully in rehabilitative programs; his failure to develop marketable skills; and three incidents of misconduct while in prison.

The board admitted that Cooke had received a favorable psychological report, but it dismissed the report as not credible because it included several inconsistent and erroneous statements. Cooke filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in State Superior Court. The court denied his petition. It said that there was ‘some evidence’, including but certainly not limited to the life offense, to support the board’s denial. Cooke subsequently filed a habeas petition with the California Court of Appeal and a petition for direct review by the California Supreme Court. Both were denied.

Cooke then filed a federal habeas petition pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §2254 challenging the parole board’s determination. The District Court denied his petition but the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that California’s parole statute created a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause, and that California’s ‘some evidence’ requirement was a component of that federally protected liberty interest. Cooke v. Solis, 606 F. 3d 1206, 1213 (2010).

Similarly respondent Elijah Clay convicted of first-degree murder after failing to get relief from State Courts, filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus before the District Court which was granted. The District Court concluded that the Governor’s reliance on the nature of Clay’s long-past commitment offense violated Clay’s right to due process, and dismissed each of the other factors the Governor cited as unsupported by the record. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, agreeing with the District Court’s conclusion that the Governor’s decision was an unreasonable application of California’s ‘some evidence’ rule and was an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented.

The Supreme Court held that habeas statute unambiguously provide that a federal court may issue a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States. It has already been settled position of law that federal habeas corpus relief did not lie for errors of state law. Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U. S. 62, 67 (1991) (quoting Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U. S. 764, 780 (1990)). As for the Due Process Clause, standard analysis under that provision proceed in two steps: the first enquiry is whether there exist a liberty or property interest of which a person has been deprived, and if so, whether the procedures followed by the State were constitutionally sufficient. [Kentucky Dept. of Corrections v. Thompson, 490U.S. 454, 460 (1989)].  The Ninth Circuit held that California law created a liberty interest in parole. But the Supreme Court observed that whatever liberty interest exist was a state interest created by California law. There exist no right under the Federal Constitution to be conditionally released before the expiration of a valid sentence, and the States were under no duty to offer parole to their prisoners.  When, however, a State created a liberty interest, the Due Process Clause require fair procedures for its vindication—and federal courts would review the application of those constitutionally required procedures. In the context of parole, the procedures required were minimal, as in Greenholtz v. Inmates of Neb. Penal and Correctional Complex, 442 U. S. 1, 12 (1979), it was held that a prisoner subject to a parole statute similar to California’s received adequate process when he was allowed an opportunity to be heard and was provided a statement of the reasons why  parole was denied. The Constitution did not require more. Cooke and Clay received at least this amount of process: They were allowed to speak at their parole hearings and to contest the evidence against them, were afforded access to their records in advance, and were notified as to the reasons why parole was denied. That should have been the beginning and the end of the federal habeas court’s inquiry into whether Cooke and Clay received due process. Instead, however, the Court of Appeals reviewed the state court’s decisions on the merits and concluded that they had unreasonably determined the facts in light of the evidence. Other Ninth Circuit cases have done the same (Pearson v. Muntz, 606 F. 3d 606, 611 (2010)). But the Supreme Court never converted California’s “some evidence” rule into a substantive federal requirement. Because the only federal right at issue was procedural, the relevant inquiry was what process Cooke and Clay received, not whether the state court decided the case correctly.

The Supreme Court concluded that Ninth Circuit’s finding that there was no evidence in the record supporting the parole denials was irrelevant unless there was a federal right at stake. The judgments below were thus reversed.