As everyone who reads this blog already knows, the Supreme Court today affirmed the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces’ Denedo decision by a 5-4 vote. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority. Since Justice Stevens was the senior justice in the majority, he would have assigned the opinion to Justice Kennedy.
The justices agreed 9-0 that the Supreme Court had statutory certiorari jurisdiction to decide the appeal. The central question for that purpose was whether an order from CAAF sending the case back to NMCCA constituted “relief.” The Court held that it did. Observing that the statute providing it with cert jurisdiction over CAAF’s cases doesn’t define the word, “relief,” the Court turned to the Black’s Law Dictionary definition and concluded that a remand order falls within the term’s meaning. United States v. Denedo, __ U.S. __, No. 08–267, slip op. at 4-5 (June 8, 2009).
Having dispensed with the challenge to its own jurisdiction, the majority proceeded to address “whether an Article I military appellate court has jurisdiction to entertain a petition for a writ of error coram nobis to challenge its earlier, and final, decision affirming a criminal conviction.” Id., slip op. at 1.
The Court observed that jurisdiction doesn’t flow from the All Writs Act; rather, a court’s power to issue a writ is “contingent on that court’s subject-matter jurisdiction over the case or controversy.” Id., slip op. at 7. Whether a court enjoys such subject-matter jurisdiction is within Congress’s control.
The Court found that the jurisdiction to provide coram nobis relief is predicated on “the original proceeding during which the error allegedly transpired.” Id., slip op. at 8. Because coram nobis relief is a further step in a criminal appeal, “NMCCA’s jurisdiction to issue the writ derives from the earlier jurisdiction it exercised to hear and determine the validity of the conviction on direct review.” Id., slip op. at 9. The Court concluded that since NMCCA had jurisdiction over the petition for a writ of error coram nobis, so too did CAAF. Id.,, slip op. at 10. The writ appeal presented questions of law that were within CAAF’s statutory jurisdiction to decide. Id.