The North Carolina Supreme Court issued a timely reminder of its status as a co-equal branch of government, sidestepping a state statute that purported to take away the high court’s jurisdiction to review decisions of the state’s Court of Appeals regarding motions for appropriate relief.
Unlike some of the more recent efforts to box in the state’s judiciary, the statute in question has been on the books for decades, and the court did not strike down the law on constitutional grounds. Instead, although the court’s opinion did not precisely spell out the interplay between the state’s statutes, the ruling appears to hold that the court has the authority to review MAR rulings at its discretion, but is not required to do so in cases where the Court of Appeals panel is divided.
The case involved a criminal defendant who sought a MAR on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. A trial court judge denied the motion, but a divided panel of the Court of Appeals reversed and instructed the trial court to vacate the defendant’s conviction, a ruling which the state appealed.
Generally, state law provides an automatic right of appeal to the Supreme Court based on a dissent at the Court of Appeals. But another state law provides that that decisions of the Court of Appeals upon review of a MAR are final and not subject to further review in the Supreme Court by appeal or otherwise.
Justice Cheri Beasley, writing for a unanimous court, acknowledged that the plain language of the state would precludes a review of the state’s appeal, but ruled that the Supreme Court maintains the authority granted to it by the state constitution to exercise “jurisdiction to review upon appeal any decision of the courts below,” and that the legislature could not restrict this authority via statute.
The court thus opted to exercise its supervisory authority under the constitution to hear the case in order to take the appeal. In the end, it held that the record before the court was insufficient to determine whether the defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel and ordered the Court of Appeals to remand the case back to the trial court to fully address the issue.
Reid Cater of N.C. Prisoner Legal Services represented the defendant. Cater said that the court was very clear in saying that it has the power to take a case under its constitutional powers, and that those powers cannot be limited by statute.
“To me, the fact that the Supreme Court is still hearing this pursuant to their constitutional powers, and not directly pursuant to a right of appeal, it indicates to me that [the statute limiting the court’s jurisdiction] still has some effect, and that it takes away an appeal of right in this situation when you’re dealing with an MAR and a dissent,” Cater said.
A trial court’s ruling on a MAR does not usually lead to a petition for an appeal, and the Court of Appeals denies most of the petitions that are filed, and most Court of Appeals decisions are unanimous, Cater said. So the number of different procedural hoops that had to be cleared in order to bring this question before the Supreme Court might explain why the court had never considered the issue before.
Assistant Attorney General Joseph Hyde represented the state. A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office said the office was still reviewing the decision.
The nine-page decision is State v. Todd (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-037-17). An opinion digest is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.
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