On Monday, the Second Circuit issued a published opinion in the cases of Mannix v. Phillips and Archer v. Fischer. The court affirmed the denial of habeas in both cases, rejecting the argument that the New York depraved indifference statute -- as it used to be interpreted before the big change in the law that happened in the 00's -- was unconstitutionally vague. The opinion was written by Wesley and joined by Raggi and Hall.
This issue has been bubbling up for awhile. And, to be honest, I am not too familiar with the "void-for-vagueness" doctrine or the arguments as to why the statute was unconstitutionally vague. I have the vague understanding that the argument was based, in part, on the fact that the depraved indifference statute had been interpreted in such a way that it was difficult to distinguish it from reckless manslaughter. But I am not really sure if that does a good job of capturing the essence of the argument. I would tend to guess that it is far more complex than that.
And the problem is that, after reading the decision, I have this nagging feeling that the Second Circuit did its best to avoid the complexity of the issue. The opinion just seems to travel too easily on a direct line from point A to point B in rejecting the claim. I get the sense that it simply can't be that simple.
Granted, the void for vagueness doctrine does not seem to be an easy standard to meet. So maybe it is that simple. I could be completely off-base with my speculation here.
But there are reasons for this nagging feeling that this was a far more complex claim. It's this line that kind of jumps out at me: "Contrary to the assertions of petitioners this change in construction is of little import in evaluating these petitions for habeas corpus relief based on vagueness, for on habeas review, we must look to New York law as it existed when [the] convictions became final."
I don't really understand that. If petitioners were saying that under the law as it is now interpreted, they were entitled to relief, that would be one thing. But they aren't saying that. My sense is that the change in law is important here because, in changing the law, the Court of Appeals had issues with the prior interpretation and had to explain what those issues were. So, petitioners weren't relying on the change in the law, they were relying on what the Court of Appeals said about how the statute had previously been interpreted and applied. Or something like that.
But, as can be seen above, the Second Circuit tries, at first, to completely brush it aside. But later the court does address it a little more directly, but rejects it in various offhand ways. None of which are particularly convincing (indeed, the court goes the easy route and says that some ambiguity is constitutionally tolerable). And the court wraps it all up with the odd conclusion that, even under the new interpretation, these guys are guilty. That seems pretty irrelevant since the court has just reiterated through out the opinion that the new interpretation doesn't matter.
So not a completely fulfilling opinion. My intuition tells me that there should have been more here.
[EDITED for clarity]