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Ninth Circuit: Younger Abstention Doctrine Inapplicable Where Habeas Petitioner Seeks Stay While § 1172.6 Petition in State Court Being Litigated and Petitioner Entitled to Stay of Habeas Proceedings While State Petition Pending

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the abstention doctrine of Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), is inapplicable where a petitioner moved for a stay of his 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition for writ of habeas corpus and that the petitioner was entitled to a stay of the habeas proceedings while his petition seeking resentencing under California Penal Code § 1172.6 was being litigated in state court.

In 2013, Jonathan Daveilo Duke was convicted of first-degree murder. On remand after a successful appeal, the prosecution agreed to a modified second-degree murder judgment, and Duke was resentenced. His conviction became final on June 10, 2018, so he had until June 10, 2019, to file his federal habeas petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A).

On January 1, 2019, California’s new resentencing law under § 1172.6 became effective. Section 1172.6 allows people convicted of felony murder or murder under the natural and probable consequences doctrine to petition for resentencing if they could not be currently convicted of those offenses under California’s amended statute that provides “[m]alice shall not be imputed to a person based solely on his or her participation in a crime.” Cal. Penal Code § 188(a)(3). On January 2, 2019, Duke petitioned for relief under § 1172.6. On May 30, 2019, several months having passed without the state superior court ruling on his § 1172.6 petition and with only 11 days remaining until the deadline for filing his federal habeas petition, Duke filed his federal habeas petition alleging prosecutorial misconduct at trial that violated his federal constitutional rights.

The state superior court ruled on the § 1172.6 petition shortly thereafter, and Duke appealed to the California Court of Appeal. Having met the deadline for filing his federal habeas petition, Duke then moved the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California for a stay of his habeas proceedings pending resolution of his appeal of the § 1172.6 proceeding.

The District Court denied the request for a stay, reasoning that Duke’s petition contained only claims that had already been fully exhausted in the state courts and that Kelly v. Small, 315 F.3d 1063 (9th Cir. 2003), and Rhines v. Weber, 544 U.S. 269 (2005), only permit stays of habeas petitions containing both exhausted and unexhausted claims. As Duke’s federal habeas petition did not contain unexhausted claims, he was not eligible for a stay under either Kelly or Rhines.

The District Court also dismissed without prejudice Duke’s federal habeas petition under the Younger abstention doctrine. The Ninth Circuit issued Duke a certificate of appealability. While his appeal was pending in the Ninth Circuit, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the superior court’s denial of his § 1172.6 petition. But on discretionary review, the California Supreme Court remanded the petition to the Court of Appeal with instructions to vacate its decision in light of amendments to § 1172.6. The Court of Appeal then remanded to the superior court to conduct an evidentiary hearing under the amended statute. As of the Ninth Circuit’s instant opinion, the state superior court had not yet held the new hearing.

The Court observed “Younger abstention is ‘an extraordinary and narrow exception to the general rule that federal courts have no more right to decline the exercise of jurisdiction which is given, than to usurp that which is not given.’” Cook v. Harding, 879 F.3d 1035 (9th Cir. 2018). In Younger, a defendant accused of a criminal violation of a state statute argued that the statute was unconstitutional and petitioned the federal district court to enjoin the state from prosecuting him. The district court granted his petition, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The Younger abstention doctrine is based on the following principles:

“One is the basic doctrine of equity jurisprudence that courts of equity should not act, and particularly should not act to restrain a criminal prosecution, when the moving party has an adequate remedy at law and will not suffer irreparable injury if denied equitable relief.… This underlying reason for restraining courts of equity from interfering with criminal prosecutions is reinforced by an even more vital consideration, the notion of ‘comity,’ that is, a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate state governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways.” Younger.

The U.S. Supreme Court further expounded upon comity concerns and “explained why the ability to vindicate constitutional claims in state court supports abstention: if a federal court enjoins state proceedings without giving the state court an opportunity to consider a plaintiff’s constitutional claims, that intervention can ‘be interpreted as reflecting negatively upon the state court’s ability to enforce constitutional principles.’” Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452 (1974).

Younger abstention applies to state criminal prosecutions as well as civil proceedings that are quasi-criminal (such as the civil habeas proceedings challenging the validity of a criminal judgment) and proceedings that “implicate a State’s interest in enforcing the orders and judgments of its courts.” Sprint Communs., Inc. v. Jacobs, 571 U.S. 69 (2013). “Younger abstention is appropriate when (1) there is an ongoing state judicial proceeding; (2) the proceeding implicates important state interests; (3) there is an adequate opportunity in the state proceedings to raise constitutional challenges; and (4) the requested relief seeks to enjoin or has the practical effect of enjoining the ongoing state judicial proceeding.” Arevalo v. Hennessy, 882 F.3d 763 (9th Cir. 2018). Younger abstention applies only if all four requirements are met. AmerisourceBergen Corp. v. Roden, 495 F.3d 1143 (9th Cir. 2007).

Turning to the present case, the Court stated: “we observe at the outset that the animating rationale of Younger is not implicated here. Although there is an ongoing state proceeding – the resentencing under § 1172.6 based on a change in state law – the federal petition in this case does not seek an injunction to prevent state officers from moving forward with the § 1172.6 proceeding. That proceeding is in substance a new case based on a new statute, and Duke seeks no relief that would interfere with it. Instead, Duke filed his federal habeas petition to ensure his petition would be timely, and then sought a stay pending the resolution of his § 1172.6 proceeding. A stayed federal petition cannot have ‘the practical effect of enjoining the ongoing state judicial proceeding.’” Arevalo.

Furthermore, Duke alleged violations of his federal constitutional rights in his federal habeas petition. The § 1172.6 proceeding in state court was a resentencing proceeding that could not provide any remedy for Duke’s claims raised in his federal habeas petition, the Court stated. Consequently, Arevalo’s prong (3) was not satisfied. Because all four prongs of the Younger abstention doctrine were not satisfied, the District Court erred in applying it, the Court ruled. AmerisourceBergen. Additionally, since the state court proceeding afforded Duke no opportunity to raise his federal constitutional claims, “Younger’s comity concerns [did] not come into play because there [was] no risk that the federal court’s actions [would] evince an impermissible ‘presumption that the state courts will not safeguard federal constitutional rights.’” Middlesex Cnty. Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass’n, 457 U.S. 423 (1982).

The Court also concluded that the District Court erred in denying the stay. In Duke’s case, “there was uncertainty regarding whether the § 1172.6 petition would toll Duke’s federal filing deadline because there is no controlling authority on that point and the parties had not briefed the issue: only 11 days remained until Dukes AEDPA filing period ended; the State did not oppose Duke’s request for a stay; and there was no possibility a stayed petition would interfere with the state resentencing proceeding.” The District Court was not limited to granting a stay only under the “unexhausted claims” requirement of Rhines and Kelly, according to the Court. A stay was appropriate because denying it created a significant risk that Duke would lose his one chance for federal review of his constitutional claims, the Court reasoned. Kelly.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded. See: Duke v. Gastelo, 64 F.4th 1088 (9th Cir. 2023).  

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