Jennings v. Stephens

PETITIONER:Robert Mitchell Jennings
RESPONDENT:William Stephens, Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division
LOCATION: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 13-7211
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 574 US (2015)
GRANTED: Mar 24, 2014
ARGUED: Oct 15, 2014
DECIDED: Jan 14, 2015

Andrew S. Oldham – Deputy Solicitor General of Texas, for the respondent
Randolph L. Schaffer – for the petitioner

Facts of the case

On July 19, 1988, Houston Police Officer Elston Howard was in the midst of arresting the clerk of an adult bookstore when Robert Mitchell Jennings entered the store intending to rob it. Jennings shot Officer Howard four times and then proceeded to rob the store. The trial court jury subsequently convicted Jennings of capital murder. In the sentencing phase of the trial, the prosecution presented evidence of Jennings’ long criminal history as an aggravating factor. The defense called the jail chaplain to testify to his opinion that Jennings was not “incorrigible,” and the defense did not present any further evidence of mitigating factors.

In 1996, Jennings filed a state habeas petition and argued that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel at the punishment phase because his attorneys had failed to contact his family to provide evidence of a disadvantaged background and had failed to find and present a 1978 psychological report that suggested that Jennings had a “mild organic brain dysfunction.” The state court held that Jennings’ attorneys had conducted a sufficient investigation into his background, and that their decision not to introduce this testimony and evidence was a reasonable trial strategy. The state court recommended that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals deny the request for habeas relief, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals acted accordingly.

In 2009, Jennings filed a federal habeas petition with the district court. The district court granted the petition and held that Jennings had received ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorneys failed to present evidence of his disadvantaged background and possible mental incapacities. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed and held that Jennings’ counsel’s decision not to pursue these avenues of argument was a legitimate trial strategy. The Court of Appeals also held that a federal habeas petitioner must file a certificate of appealability in order to respond to arguments concerning the state’s appeal.


Did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit err in holding that that a federal habeas petitioner who prevailed in district court must file a separate certificate of appealability to respond to the state’s appeal?

Media for Jennings v. Stephens

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 14, 2015 in Jennings v. Stephens

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Scalia has our opinion this morning in case 13-7211 Jennings v. Stephens.

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on writ of certiorari the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

It requires us to decide whether a habeas petitioner who before the District Court has one relief entitling him to a new sentencing hearing must take a cross-appeal with all that entails in order to raise on appeal arguments which would entitle him only to the same thing that is a new sentencing hearing.

Petitioner Robert Mitchell Jennings murdered Officer Elston Howard in the course of a robbery.

He was arrested tried and convicted of capital murder.

During the punishment phase Jennings trial counsel called only the prison chaplain who testified that Jennings was not incorrigible.

Notably Jennings’ attorney failed to present evidence of the defendant’s troubled background and further failed to investigate and to present evidence of his brain damage, each of which might have served as a mitigating factor.

Further trial counsel for the defendant in his closing remarks acknowledged that he could not “quarrel with a death sentence.”

The jury returned to wording that Jennings presented a continuing threat to society, and the trial court sentenced Jennings to death.

After his conviction became final, Jennings applied for federal habeas relief.

He made three arguments that are relevant here.

The first two centered on his trial counsel’s failures to investigate his background and his mental-health and cited our holding in Wiggins v. Smith, which requires such investigation.

The third argument claimed that trial counsel’s closing remarks rendered his performance constitutionally ineffective as did the remarks of trial counsel in the previous case of our Smith v. Spivak.

We referred to these two asserted grounds for relief as Jennings Wiggins errors and his Spisak error respectively.

The District Court granted Jennings a habeas relief on both of his Wiggins errors but denied relief on his Spisak error.

The State appealed and though Jennings neither filed a cross-appeal nor sought a certificate of appealability as is typically required by habeas petitioners on appeal, he argued all three points in defense of his writ.

The Fifth Circuit reversed the District Court on the Wiggins errors and concluded that Jennings Spisak error argument was in substance a cross-appeal which required notice of appeal and a certificate of appealability.

The court therefore determined that it lacked jurisdiction over the Spisak claim.

We reversed the Fifth Circuit’s judgment.

We have long distinguished between cross-appeals and arguments in defense of a judgment.

We explained in United States v. American Railway Express Company that an appellee who does not take a cross-appeal may “urge in support of a decree any matter appearing before the record although his argument may involve an attack upon the reasoning of the lower court.”

An argument in defense of an appeal requires a cross-appeal only when it would “attack the decree with a view to enlarging the party’s own rights or lessening the rights of his adversary.”

The District Court’s judgment in this case therefore holds the answer to the question presented.

Like all Federal Appellate courts we review judgments not opinions.

When we examined the judgment the District Court issued we see the Jennings’ rights under the judgment were to be given a new sentencing hearing to have his death sentence commuted to life or to be released for all of this within a fixed period of time.

The State’s rights were to retain Jennings pending, re-sentencing or commutation.

Since Jennings’ Spisak claim would have yield him only the same relief that his Wiggins claims had done he sought neither to enlarge his rights nor to encumber the State’s.

His argument therefore could be presented in defense of his judgment and required neither a cross-appeal nor a certificate of appealability.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Kennedy and Alito have joined.