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Hughes v. Skolnik

United States District Court, D. Nevada

September 17, 2014

PHILIP HUGHES, Petitioner,
HOWARD SKOLNIK, et al., Respondents.


KENT J. DAWSON, District Judge.

This represented habeas matter brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 comes before the Court for a final decision on the merits.

I. Background

Petitioner Philip Hughes challenges a 2002 state court jury verdict convicting him of four counts of sexual assault of a minor under fourteen years of age and two counts of lewdness with a child under the age of fourteen. He directly appealed the conviction, and petitioned for postconviction relief in the state courts. Additional facts will be provided below as necessary.

II. Standard on Review

Congress, through 28 U.S.C. § 2254, provided for habeas corpus relief in cases such as this, but only in very limited circumstances which are "highly deferential" and "difficult to meet." Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 1398, (2011). Relevant here, relief is unavailable unless resolution of the underlying matter in the state courts "(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United states; or (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." Id. at 1398 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)). Under either prong, the petitioner carries the burden of proof. § 2254(e)(1).

A state court decision is "contrary to" clearly established federal law if (1) it "applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [Supreme Court] cases" or (2) it "confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme Court] and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [the Court's] precedent. Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 15-16 (2003). Thus, "[a] federal court may not overrule a state court for simply holding a view different from its own, when the precedent from this Court is, at best, ambiguous. Id., 540 U.S. at 17. Nor is this a subjective inquiry; rather, "the federal court should ask whether the state court's application of clearly established federal law was objectively unreasonable. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 365 (2000).

As for a state court's factual determinations, a reviewing federal court must be "particularly deferential." Lambert v. Blodgett, 393 F.3d 943, 972 (9th Cir. 2004). Such determinations may be overturned only if they are "objectively unreasonable." Id., 393 F.3d at 972. This underscores the simple point made in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1), that the state court determination of a factual issue shall be presumed to be correct unless rebutted by clear and convincing evidence. Thus, "a federal court may not second-guess a state court's fact-finding process unless, after review of the state-court record, it determines that the state court was not merely wrong, but actually unreasonable." Taylor v. Maddox, 366 F.3d 992, 999 (9th Cir. 2004).

Lastly, § 2254 does not require "a statement of reasons" from the adjudicating state court. Harrington v. Richter, 131 S.Ct. 770, 784 (2011). "Where a state court's decision is unaccompanied by an explanation, the habeas petitioner's burden still must be met by showing there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief." Id., 131 S.Ct. at 784. To be clear, the standard is "difficult to meet... because it was meant to be." Id., 131 S.Ct. at 786. "[H]abeas corpus is a guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal. Id., 131 S.Ct. at 786 (internal quotation marks omitted).

III. Analysis

A. Ground One: Due Process in Translation

Hughes alleges that he was denied due process of law in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments because his translator allegedly rendered an incomplete and therefore inaccurate translation of a witness's testimony. The Supreme Court of Nevada rejected this claim for the following reasons:

First, the Court found that the interpreters satisfied the statutory requirements found in NRS 50.054(2), which notably center around "the best of [the translator's] ability." Second, the Court found that the interpreters satisfied Ninth Circuit because "[w]hile the general standard for interpreters requires continuous word-for-word translation, occasional lapses in the standard will not necessarily contravene a defendant's constitutional rights." United States v. Long, 301 F.3d 1095, 1105 (9th Cir. 2002). Third, the Court found that any missed responses were later repeated and properly interpreted, and that the witness was "fully examined during direct, cross, redirect and recross examination... evidenced by 119 pages of her testimony transcript." (#10, Ex. 5 at 3). Further, "Defense counsel was diligent in rephrasing his questions and identifying inappropriate responses that required [] follow-up questions." (#10, Ex. 5 at 3). Ultimately, the Court concluded that for the above reasons, "no contravention of important constitutional rights occurred in connection with the in-court interpretation of [the witness's] testimony." (#10, Ex. 5 at 3).

Here, Hughes has failed to cite a single decision of the Supreme Court governing the adequacy of translation relating to due process concerns. This failure is understandable as the Court has been unable to find any such precedent in its own research. But, in the absence of a Supreme Court decision, Hughes cannot argue-let alone prove-that the state court decision was either "contrary to" or "unreasonably applied" Supreme Court precedent. See, e.g., Runningeagle v. Ryan, 686 F.3d 758, 776 (9th Cir. 2012) ...

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