Calderon v. Ashmus

LOCATION: The White House

DOCKET NO.: 97-391
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 523 US 740 (1998)
ARGUED: Mar 24, 1998
DECIDED: May 26, 1998

Michael Laurence - Argued the cause for the respondent
Ronald S. Matthias - San Francisco, California, argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

Chapter 154 of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) provides an expedited review process for federal habeas proceedings in capital cases in States that meet certain conditions. California officials stated that they believed they qualified for Chapter 154. Troy Ashmus, a state prisoner sentenced to death, filed a class action suit, which included all capital prisoners in California whose convictions were affirmed on direct appeal after June 6, 1989, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to resolve uncertainty over whether Chapter 154 applied. Holding that California did not qualify for Chapter 154, the District Court enjoined the State from invoking the Chapter in any proceedings involving class members. In affirming, the Court of Appeals concluded the Eleventh Amendment did not bar the suit and that the injunction did not violate the First Amendment.


Are state prisoners' challenges of the applicability of Chapter 154 of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 to their respective states, separate from a federal habeas corpus petition challenging their state court prosecution, an Article III "case or controversy" to which federal courts are limited?

Media for Calderon v. Ashmus

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 24, 1998 in Calderon v. Ashmus

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 97-391, Arthur Calderon v. Troy Ashmus.

Spectators are admonished, do not talk until you get out of the courtroom.

The Court remains in session.

Mr. Matthias, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Ronald S. Matthias:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This suit was initiated by a California death row inmate to prevent State officials from claiming in habeas cases that California is a Chapter 154 qualifying jurisdiction.

The principal issue before this Court is a threshold question.

That question is whether this suit is barred by the Eleventh Amendment or, alternatively, whether it qualifies or is authorized under the ex parte Young exception to the Eleventh Amendment.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Matthias, do you think this suit could have been brought as a class action in a State court in California?

Ronald S. Matthias:

As a declaratory judgment?

Sandra Day O'Connor:


Ronald S. Matthias:

There is a... Your Honor, there is a provision of California law for declaratory judgments.

I'm not intimately familiar with the provisions of that.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, I'm just wondering what the alternatives might have been.

You're objecting because the suit was filed in Federal court, but presumably had it been filed this same kind of issue and demand in State court, it would be all right as far as you're concerned.

Ronald S. Matthias:

Well, I'm not sure that the State courts would have thought themselves to be an appropriate forum for entertaining the question insofar as the issue of 154 compliance or not only has significance for--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, a State court can decide that just as well as a Federal court, couldn't it?

Ronald S. Matthias:

--Certainly I'm convinced that a State court could read the Federal statute, interpret it, and would be actually in a better position to understand the issue at least insofar as the 154 compliance question--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, as a practical matter it makes a lot of sense to have the whole issue resolved and not do it case-by-case in every separate Federal habeas petition that's filed.

I mean, that makes some sense, I would think, from the standpoint of the State as well as the defendants.

Ronald S. Matthias:

--It does make some sense.

It also makes some sense to allow issues to percolate, especially an issue as difficult as this one has evidently proved for many Federal courts.

Obviously not Federal courts within California, because in fact only one Federal court has been allowed, has allowed itself, effectively, to consider this question, but I certainly don't dispute that there is some economy in somehow aggregating these issues, and there are procedures for that.

Your Honor's suggestion about perhaps going to State court at least on some of the subissues that will turn critically on questions of State--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Not just the subissues, the whole thing.

Ronald S. Matthias:

--That, too, might have been available.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Did... has California complied... by the way, has California adopted a statute in the interim, since we took this--

Ronald S. Matthias:


There was a change in the law the effect of which... the effective date of which is January 1 of this year, and a handful, and I think three to five death row inmates have since had their counsel appointed under that new procedure and, theoretically, when they finish their State proceeding in however many years that takes, and they then move to Federal court if that proves necessary, then the issue of Chapter 154 compliance at/or... I should say, the issue of Chapter 154 applicability to their Federal habeas proceedings will then turn on what we call the new law.

I will indicate, though, that obviously the vast majority of the class is utterly unaffected.