Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Rose by Any Other Name . . .

Chandler v. State, 2016 VT 62

By Andrew Delaney

“Would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare wrote. And this case also teaches us that creative labeling cannot change the nature of a thing. For example, just because we describe this blog as “witty,” does not make it so.

Mr. Chandler’s “Petition for Extraordinary Relief” was dismissed by the trial court. When the SCOV puts quotes around the name of the filing itself, it’s a safe bet that this is not going to end well. Essentially, the trial court tossed Mr. Chandler’s filing because in its view, the petition raised claims already decided in a previous post-conviction-relief (PCR) proceeding.

The SCOV begins by noting that this is round four of Mr. Chandler’s appeals of his conviction. Mr. Chandler was convicted of impeding a public officer—a felony—when he confronted a firefighter responding to a reported brush fire on his property. His conviction was affirmed in an unpublished opinion (which I tirelessly tracked down for you). He filed a PCR on ineffective-assistance-of-counsel grounds, arguing that a fee dispute and other deficiencies meant that his conviction was unlawfully obtained. The trial court got rid of that case, reasoning that Mr. Chandler was done with his sentence, so the thing was moot. The SCOV reversed, reasoning that the case wasn’t moot, and sent it back for a decision on the merits.

On remand, the trial court granted summary judgment to the State, mostly on grounds that Mr. Chandler’s claims required expert testimony (and he didn’t provide any). On his one remaining claim—that his lawyer was biased—the trial court reasoned that he couldn’t show that would’ve changed the outcome. That time, the SCOV affirmed in another unpublished opinion.

So, Mr. Chandler then filed his “Petition for Extraordinary Relief,” under Rules 21 and 75. His pitch was that this wasn’t another PCR—which would be barred by this statute—this was a petition for relief from “specific unlawful acts and omission” by his former lawyer that violated his constitutional rights and caused collateral consequences that he has to endure. The trial court didn’t go for it, concluded that it was a barred-by-statute second bite at the PCR apple, and granted the State’s motion to dismiss.

In the meantime, Mr. Chandler had filed a motion to disqualify the presiding judge on the basis that he’s been made aware of “certain statements and acts” she’d “promised to commit.” He listed her as a witness in three of his pending cases. The chief superior judge denied the motion because he didn’t provide any evidence to support his claims of bias or prejudice on the trial judge’s part.

As you may’ve deduced, Mr. Chandler appeals.

The SCOV writes that Mr. Chandler “appears to raise six issues on appeal.” As the SCOV divvies them up, four go the merits of the ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim, one goes to the characterization of his motion as a subsequent PCR petition, and one argues that the trial court ignored the collateral consequences of his felony conviction, which were never addressed on the merits. The State is like, “Forget all that. This is a second PCR. Not allowed.”

The SCOV agrees with the State and affirms the dismissal of Mr. Chandler’s petition for extraordinary relief and the denial of his motion to disqualify the trial judge.

Mr. Chandler’s complaint basically said his conviction should be tossed “because of the highly unusual circumstances that occurred during trial.” But all the “highly unusual circumstances” related to Mr. Chandler’s lawyer’s behavior.

[Editor’s Note: Delaney is a nutjob. Not SCOV Law's views.] I’m going to go off on a tangent here because I can. I think that most of the cases where there actually was “ineffective” assistance of counsel are going to be cases in which the courts reviewing are going to find that counsel was effective because counsel didn’t take risks. It’s not that you need to take risks to win trials, but objecting at the “right” time, for example, can look slimy and dishonest to a jury. Not having a defendant testify—which is often the correct thing to do legally and a defendant’s fundamental constitutional right—can look like an attempt to hide the truth. So what might be considered “correct” in the context of a PCR is often—in my opinion—the very thing that led to a conviction in the first place. [Editor’s Note: see note above. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.]

At any rate, the trial court found that despite Mr. Chandler’s attempts at reclassification of his lawyer’s actions as “breaches of the ethical responsibilities of the lawyer,” they were the same actions that were the original PCR’s subject matter.

The SCOV notes that in the PCR arena, there’s a general rule against more than one bite at the apple laid out in a statute. Because Mr. Chandler already has had one PCR on this conviction, he doesn’t qualify for another one—even if he calls it something else. Because the SCOV views the issues raised as the same, it concludes that they are barred by the statute. The SCOV takes a few moments to reason why the rules cited by Mr. Chandler aren’t applicable to this case and concludes that this is just an attempt to bring an otherwise-barred claim. Mr. Chandler is seeking to overturn his conviction—“the exact same remedy that he sought in the PCR action.” Accordingly, the SCOV affirms the trial court’s classification of the “Petition for Extraordinary Relief” as a subsequent PCR and its dismissal on those grounds.

The SCOV dismisses Mr. Chandler’s summary-judgment-isn’t-a-decision-on-the-merits argument out of hand. As to his but-the-trial-court-didn’t-consider-the-collateral-conseequences-yet argument, the SCOV notes that the trial court could’ve granted summary judgment to the State regardless of whether Mr. Chandler listed out the collateral consequences or not. That was quick.

And that brings us to the final disqualify-the-judge issue. Here, Mr. Chandler argues that he “discovered information” from his attorneys that the judge—and I’m paraphrasing here—totally had it out for him. Because he listed the judge as a witness, he argues it’d be a conflict of interest for the judge to preside in a case where “evidence was being taken about her statements” and because he’d questioned her integrity. The SCOV disagrees.

The SCOV points out that judges are presumed to be honest and have integrity, and that it’s on the party seeking disqualification to show otherwise. The moving party has to affirmatively show bias or prejudice directed at him. And the SCOV reviews a disqualification motion only for abuse of discretion.

The SCOV sees no abuse of discretion here. Mr. Chandler admits he has no way to confirm or deny his own allegations. He also hasn’t shown any prejudice. Listing the judge as a witness doesn’t get him there because if it did, then anybody could list a judge as a witness, say “Judge is out to get me,” and get rid of any judge. SCOV-y don’t play that.

And so, the SCOV affirms the dismissal of Mr. Chandler’s petition and the denial of his motion to disqualify the judge.

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