[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Wednesday that a habeas petitioner who receives a favorable ruling at the district court level does not have to take a cross-appeal or obtain a certificate of appealability to defend the judgment in his favor on appeal. In 1989 Robert Mitchell Jennings was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. In his 2009 federal habeas petition, filed following the failure of his direct appeals and state habeas petitions, Jennings argued that his counsel was ineffective at trial based on three different theories, and the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas [official website] granted the petition based on two of the grounds. On appeal before the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website], Jennings argued that the lower court reached the correct decision, again basing his arguments on all three theories [transcript, PDF]. The Fifth Circuit reversed the grant of habeas corpus under the two theories that the district court had ruled on, and determined it lacked jurisdiction [opinion; PDF] to hear the third claim because Jennings failed to cross-appeal or obtain a certificate of appealability. In its majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court held that because Jennings’ remedy—that he be granted a new sentencing hearing—would have been the same under each of his three theories, there was no risk that arguing the third ground would enlarge his rights or lessen the state’s rights under the district court’s judgment, and so he was not required to take a cross-appeal or obtain a certificate of appealability.
The court heard oral arguments for Jennings v. Stephens in October. Certiorari was granted [JURIST report] on the matter in March.