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Schoenfeld v. Valenzuela

United States District Court, N.D. California

February 19, 2015

JAMES LEONARD SCHOENFELD, Petitioner,
v.
ELVIN VALENZUELA, Warden, Respondent.

ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR EVIDENTIARY HEARING (Docket No. 17); DENYING MOTION FOR ORAL ARGUMENT (Docket No. 81); DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS (Docket No. 1)

CLAUDIA WILKEN, District Judge.

Petitioner James Leonard Schoenfeld, a state prisoner, seeks a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In addition, Petitioner moves for an evidentiary hearing and oral argument on his petition. Petitioner claims he was denied parole by a parole hearing panel chaired by a commissioner with an undisclosed, disqualifying conflict of interest, in violation of his due process right to an impartial decisionmaker. Respondent Elvin Valenzuela opposes the petition. Petitioner filed a traverse. The matter was taken under submission on the papers. Having considered all of the papers submitted by the parties, the Court denies the petition.

BACKGROUND

In July 1976, Petitioner hijacked a school bus, kidnapping the driver and twenty-six children. Petitioner plead guilty to twenty-seven separate counts of kidnapping for ransom; he initially received concurrent sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on each count, but this was modified on appeal to reflect a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

Petitioner's most recent parole hearing was held on March 13, 2013, at the prison where he is in custody, the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, California. That hearing was conducted by a two-person panel, with Jeffrey Ferguson as presiding commissioner and Raquel Fassnacht as deputy commissioner. A representative from the Alameda County District Attorney's Office appeared at the hearing to oppose Petitioner's parole. At the conclusion of the hearing, the panel denied Petitioner parole.

At some time after the hearing, Mr. Ferguson took a position as an investigator for the Alameda County District Attorney's Office. Petitioner alleges that Mr. Ferguson made his application for this position several months before Petitioner's parole hearing, and argues that Mr. Ferguson's failure to recuse or at least to disclose this potential conflict of interest denied him his due process right to a hearing before an unbiased adjudicator.

In response to the Board's decision, Petitioner sought, but was denied, relief on state collateral review.[1] This federal habeas petition followed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A federal writ of habeas corpus may not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state's adjudication of the claims: "(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

"Under the contrary to' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the Supreme] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412-13 (2000). "Under the unreasonable application' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts in the prisoner's case." Id. at 413. The only definitive source of clearly established federal law under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) is the holdings of the Supreme Court as of the time of the relevant state court decision. Id. at 412. Although only Supreme Court precedents are binding on the state courts and only those holdings need to be reasonably applied, circuit law may be persuasive authority in analyzing whether a state court unreasonably applied Supreme Court authority. Clark v. Murphy, 331 F.3d 1062, 1070-71 (9th Cir. 2003).

To determine whether the state court's decision is contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established law, a federal court looks to the decision of the highest state court that addressed the merits of a petitioner's claim in a reasoned decision. LaJoie v. Thompson, 217 F.3d 663, 669 n.7 (9th Cir. 2000).[2]

DISCUSSION

Here, Petitioner has not demonstrated even that there is "clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, " much less that the state court's reasoned opinion is contrary to or an unreasonable application of such clearly established United States Supreme Court law.

The Due Process Clause establishes the right to an impartial and disinterested tribunal. Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 46 (1975). However, members of a tribunal are presumed to act with honesty and integrity. Id. at 47; Stivers v. Pierce, 71 F.3d 732, 741 (9th Cir. 1995). To overcome this presumption, a petitioner "must show that the adjudicator ...


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