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Habeas Review – Parole Denial – Limited to Opportunity to be Heard and Statement of Reasons

Swarthout v. Damon Cooke, USSC No. 10-333, 1/24/11

Review under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 of a state’s decision to deny parole is limited to whether the inmate was provided an opportunity to be heard and a statement of reasons why parole was denied. The federal court simply has no authority to scrutinize the merits of the denial.

… Because the only federal right at issue is procedural, the relevant inquiry is what process Cooke and Clay received, not whether the state court decided the case correctly.

The Ninth Circuit’s questionable finding that there was no evidence in the record supporting the parole denials is irrelevant unless there is a federal right at stake, as §2254(a) requires. See id. , at 67. The short of the matter is that the responsibility for assuring that the constitutionally adequate procedures governing California’s parole system are properly applied rests with California courts, and is no part of the Ninth Circuit’s business.

There is no federal constitutional right to conditional release, the Court reminds. But the state creates a liberty interest, as it does when it creates the possibility of parole, due process “requires fair procedures.” “In the context of parole, … the procedures required are minimal.” Adequate process was observed here: the petitioners were allowed to speak at their parole hearings and to contest evidence against them, were granted access to their records in advance of the hearings, and were provided reasons for denial. “That should have been the beginning and end of the federal habeas courts’ inquiry into whether Cooke and Clay received due process.”

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