Director, Center for Supreme Court AdvocacyNational Association of Attorneys General
This Report summarizes opinions issued on March 23, 24, and 31, and April 4, 2022 (Part I); and cases granted review on March 28, 2022 (Part II).
Cases Granted Review: Cruz v. Arizona, 21-846
Cruz v. Arizona, 21-846. The Court limited the grant of certiorari to the following question: “Whether the Arizona Supreme Court’s holding that Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g) precluded post-conviction relief is an adequate and independent state-law ground for the judgment”―a judgment that prevented consideration of a federal rule that would otherwise have retroactively applied. In Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154 (1994), the Court held that where the state puts a capital defendant’s future dangerousness at issue, due process entitles the defendant to inform the jury that he will be ineligible for parole if not sentenced to death. In Lynch v. Arizona, 578 U.S. 613 (2016) (per curiam), the Court reversed the Arizona Supreme Court’s holding that Simmons did not apply to Arizona law. Here, petitioner John Cruz’s conviction became final after Simmons but before Lynch; he filed a second petition for state post-conviction relief relying on Lynch. The Arizona Supreme Court held that Cruz was not entitled to relief because Lynch was not a “significant change in the law” as required for successive post-conviction applications under Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g).
John Cruz was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for shooting and killing a police officer in 2003. The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed Cruz’s conviction and sentence on direct appeal. The court addressed two arguments related to Simmons: first, whether the trial court erred by refusing to make a pretrial ruling whether Cruz would eventually be eligible for release if he were not sentenced to death; and second, whether the trial court abused its discretion by precluding testimony about Cruz’s chances of future release. The court stated that Simmons did not apply to Arizona’s sentencing framework―the same view that was later rejected in Lynch. The U.S. Supreme Court denied Cruz’s petition for writ of certiorari. In 2012, Cruz filed his first petition for state post-conviction relief, which the Arizona courts denied.
Following the decision in Lynch, Cruz filed a second petition for post-conviction relief under Rule 32.1(g), which provides that a defendant may obtain relief if “[t]here has been a significant change in the law that if determined to apply to defendant’s case would probably overturn the defendant’s conviction or sentence.” The state trial court denied the petition, and the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed. 487 P.3d 991. The court found that Lynch “did not declare any change in the law representing a clear break from the past.” The court found that Simmons was clearly established at the time of Cruz’s trial, sentencing, and direct appeal “despite the misapplication of that law by Arizona courts.” Thus, Lynch was not a “transformative event for purposes of Rule 32.1(g).” Although Arizona courts had consistently found that Simmons did not apply under Arizona law, the court held that Rule 32.1(g) requires a significant change in the law, not a significant change in the “application” of the law. Having found no significant change in the law, the court did not consider whether Lynch applied retroactively or would have affected Cruz’s sentence.
Cruz argues in his petition that the trial judge “repeatedly denied him his right under Simmons to inform the jury that he was parole-ineligible.” And he maintains that Lynch retroactively applies to his case under Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), because Lynch “merely applies a ‘settled’ rule of federal law [that] must be applied to cases on direct review and collateral review alike.” Cruz insists that “in states like Arizona that provide a postconviction forum for federal claims, state courts must apply settled federal rules on collateral review. See Yates v. Aiken, 484 U.S. 211, 218 (1988).” In his view, the Arizona Supreme Court decision “flouts the Supremacy Clause, misconstrues federal retroactivity, and underscores the Arizona Supreme Court’s continued hostility to Simmons.” He also argues that the Arizona decision conflicts with state high courts that have applied federal rules in similar circumstances.
Arizona responds by arguing, among other things, that the Arizona Supreme Court decision rests on an independent and adequate state law ground, namely, Rule 32.1(g). Arizona maintains that “[t]he initial determination whether there has been a significant change in the law―on which the Arizona Supreme Court rested its decision here―is a question of state law.” In Arizona’s view, “Rule 32 places affirmative limits on the issues that Arizona courts will entertain in collateral proceedings, and especially a successive collateral proceeding such as this one. And because Cruz’s claim did not meet Arizona’s procedural requirements under Rule 32.1(g), the Arizona Supreme Court (unlike the state court in Yates) did not consider the merits of the federal claim. The federal retroactivity decisions Cruz relies on are thus irrelevant to the state law procedural question on which the Arizona Supreme Court resolved Cruz’s petition.”
Cruz responds that “[b]ecause Lynch must apply to cases on collateral review as a matter of federal law, the Arizona Supreme Court was required to give effect to Lynch below.” As to Rule 32.1(g), Cruz argues that “state procedural rules are not adequate if they ‘discriminate against claims of federal rights.’ But, as interpreted below, Rule 32.1(g) plainly discriminates against federal rights. Federal law requires courts to give effect to decisions applying settled rules on collateral review, but the decision below interprets Arizona law to prohibit courts from giving effect to those same decisions.” (Citations omitted.) And Cruz argues that Rule 32.1(g) is not an “adequate” state rule because “the Arizona Supreme Court had never construed Rule 32.1(g) to apply in remotely comparable circumstances.”
[Editor’s note: Some of the language in the background section of the summary above was taken from the petition for writ of certiorari and brief in opposition.]