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Judge Must List Reasons for Certificate of Appealability Grant

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 28, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Judges are people, too. They occasionally make mistakes. And sometimes criminal defendants bear the mistakes of the judges.

Today we have a quick reminder from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that it helps to check a judge's work for errors.

Damon Blackman was convicted of first degree robbery in 2003, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. New York State Courts affirmed his conviction and denied his application for leave to appeal, so Blackman, proceeding pro se, filed a writ of habeas corpus in federal court.

Last year, a U.S. District Court Clerk's Office forwarded the district judge a memorandum explaining Blackman's request for Certificate of Appealability (COA). The judge indicated on the standard form memorandum that the certificate was granted, but did not specify the issue or issues on which it was granted. Because the issues were not identified, the district court denied Blackman's habeas petition.

The federal habeas appeals statute provides that a district court may issue "a certificate of appealability ... only if the applicant has made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right." In granting a COA, a district judge is required to indicate the "specific issue or issues" that satisfy the "substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right" standard.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that the district judge failed to comply with the appeals statute because the memorandum contained no specification of the issue or issues for which the COA was granted.

This probably was not an isolated incident.

The appellate court noted that the mistake seemed to be an oversight triggered by the practice of the Clerk's Office form that solicited only a "Granted" or "Denied" response. Since the form did not have a fill-in-the-blank option for the judge to detail grounds for the granted COA, the judge did not indicate the grounds.

As the clerical error was not Blackman's fault, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the matter to the district court for a statement of the issue or issues on which the judge granted the COA.

Blackman represented himself in this case, and had no reason to know that the court's form was deficient, but practicing lawyers didn't catch the oversight either.

Appeals are not cheap. If you think that a court document lacks information, and could later compromise your client's rights, raise the issue with the judge as soon as possible.

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