Tennessee Supreme Court Restricts Coram Nobis Relief, Overturning Recent Precedent Yet Again

By Daniel Horwitz:

In a 3-1 decision, the Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that petitions for writ of error coram nobis filed pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-26-105 can no longer be used to challenge guilty pleas.  The Court’s decision in Frazier v. State formally overturns its prior decision in Wlodarz v. State,[1] which the Court decided on precisely the same issue just four years ago.

Frazier marks yet another step in the Court’s increasingly activist efforts to overturn past precedent and eschew stare decisis in cases that bolstered the rights of the accused under Tennessee law.  Following the recent departure of Justices Gary Wade and Janice Holder, the Tennessee Supreme Court’s new conservative majority has aggressively sought to limit and overturn earlier rulings that established protections for criminal defendants—even, in some instances, when both the government and defendants agreed that certain rights existed.[2]  The Court’s recent decisions following this approach have run the gamut from issues involving jury instructions to narrowing the means by which defendants are permitted to prove that they suffer from an intellectual disability.  Perhaps most controversially, however – at least for the moment – in May 2016, the Court issued its decision in State v. McCormick on the “community caretaking doctrine,” which created a new exception to the warrant requirement in Tennessee and overturned the Court’s prior decision in State v. Moats on the very same question barely three years earlier.[3]

The specific issue involved in Frazier was Tennessee’s coram nobis statute, which is codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-26-105.  Coram nobis is a venerable common law writ dating back to sixteenth century England that has been used throughout the United States to cure injustice when no other procedural mechanism was available.  Perhaps the most famous example of the writ’s issuance in recent history is the posthumous exoneration of George Stinney Jr. in 2014– a 14-year-old black child who was executed in South Carolina in 1944 after being convicted of a capital crime that he did not commit.  Broadly speaking, however, from a historical perspective, “the common law writ of error coram nobis has served as a ‘gap-filler’ which was invoked ‘to rectify a recognized wrong when all other possible remedies [we]re no longer available.’”[4]

Frazier involved a defendant who pleaded guilty to second degree murder in 2004.  In 2011, he sought coram nobis relief from his conviction based on newly discovered evidence.  It is not clear from the court’s opinion what the newly discovered evidence was, but suffice it to say that defendants sometimes do plead guilty to crimes that they did not commit or plead guilty for other reasons that are unrelated to their guilt.  As a result, most people agree that some type of relief should be available to defendants who can make a credible showing that they are innocent of a crime for which they pleaded guilty, were unlawfully coerced or threatened into pleading guilty, or pleaded guilty as a result of some other constitutional infirmity.  Based on a variety of limitations that require defendants to assert such claims quickly after their pleas are accepted or else lose them forever, however, there is often no procedural mechanism available to defendants who seek to prove the illegitimacy of a guilty plea several years after it was entered.  Thus, in such situations, it is natural for a defendant to turn to the writ of error coram nobis for relief when no other remedy is available.

The only question at issue in Frazier was “whether a criminal defendant who pleads guilty may later attack that plea by seeking error coram nobis relief.”[5]  The uncertainty arose out of Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-26-105’s use of the word “trial” – rather than a more general term like “hearing” or “proceeding” – which at least plausibly lends itself to the conclusion that guilty pleas were intended to be excluded from the statute’s ambit.   Specifically, the relevant section of Tennessee’s coram nobis statute provides:

The relief obtainable . . .  shall be confined to errors [outside] the record and to matters that were not or could not have been litigated on the trial of the case, on a motion for a new trial, on appeal in the nature of a writ of error, on writ of error, or in a habeas corpus proceeding.  Upon a showing by the defendant that the defendant was without fault in failing to present certain evidence at the proper time, a writ of error coram nobis will lie for subsequently or newly discovered evidence relating to matters which were litigated at the trial if the judge determines that such evidence may have resulted in a different judgment, had it been presented at the trial.[6]

In 2012, however, this uncertainty was resolved by the Tennessee Supreme Court in Wlodarz v. State, which held without equivocation that: “a writ of error coram nobis is available to challenge a guilty plea . . . .”[7]   In Wlodarz, the Court explained in a lengthy section entitled “Guilty Plea Proceeding as a Trial” that “[n]umerous authorities interpret the term trial broadly.”[8] The Court’s majority also cited extensive precedent from the United States Supreme Court, the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, and the legal treatises American Jurisprudence and Corpus Juris Secundum to support that proposition.[9]  Consequently, the Wlodarz court concluded that “[i]t is inappropriate, in our view, to trivialize a guilty plea proceeding by holding that it does not constitute a ‘trial.’”[10]  The Court further observed that “[i]f this Court were to say that a guilty plea proceeding is not a trial and thus, not subject to the writ of error coram nobis, we would be the first to so hold, brushing aside centuries of tried and tested jurisprudence.”[11]

Importantly, no legislative changes of any kind were made to the coram nobis statute after Wlodarz was decided.  At least to this author’s knowledge, the decision was not followed by any other legal or factual developments that might have caused the Tennessee Supreme Court to reconsider it, either.  Instead, the only intervening fact of significance was a recent change in the composition of the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Thus, without any particular reason for doing so, the current Court decided to grant review in Frazier “to reexamine the availability of the error coram nobis statute as a procedural mechanism to collaterally attack a guilty plea.”[12]

Upon review, a three-Justice majority explained that “[t]he plain and ordinary meaning of the term ‘litigated on [or at] the trial’ in the context of criminal prosecutions refers to a contested proceeding involving the submission of evidence to a fact-finder who then must assess and weigh the proof in light of the applicable law and arrive at a verdict of guilt or acquittal.”[13]  The majority then recited that its “oath is to do justice, not to perpetuate error” – a familiar line invoked by courts when overturning established precedent – and further held that the value of stare decisis was limited in this instance because “Wlodarz is only a few years old.”[14]  Accordingly, Frazier’s majority decision formally overruled Wlodarz and held that the term “trial,” as used in Tennessee’s coram nobis, must actually be construed narrowly.

In a short but hard-hitting dissent, Chief Justice Sharon Lee lambasted the majority for having dispensed with stare decisis so readily.  She noted: “The principle of stare decisis, that the Court should follow precedential decisions, is ‘a foundation stone of the rule of law.’”[15]  This foundation, she explained, “promotes consistency in the law and confidence in this Court’s decisions,” and it “gives firmness and stability to principles of law so that people may know their legal rights.”[16]  Further, Chief Justice Lee observed:

We previously set out the circumstances when the Court may and should disregard stare decisis, overrule precedent, and overturn a settled rule of law: when there is obvious error or unreasonableness in the precedent; when a change in conditions makes the precedent obsolete; when adherence to precedent would likely cause greater harm to the community than would disregarding stare decisis; or, especially, when prior precedent conflicts with a constitutional provision.  The Court should follow precedent unless an error has been committed, and it becomes plain and palpable.  The Court may also revisit an earlier decision where experience with its application reveals that it is unworkable or badly reasoned.  Here, none of those compelling reasons are posed.[17]

As noted in this article’s introduction, Frazier represents just another star in a constellation of recent judicial activism by the Court’s new conservative majority, which has all but rushed to overturn past precedent that bolstered the rights of criminal defendants.  This pattern is also likely to continue.  Coming down the pipeline, for example, the Tennessee Supreme Court recently granted review in State v. Tuttle by expressing its “interest[] in briefing and argument of the question whether this Court should revisit the continuing vitality of State v. Jacumin, 778 S.W.2d 430 (Tenn. 1989).”  Ten months ago, the Court also heard argument in State v. Reynolds, which may well result in Tennessee’s imminent adoption of its first-ever “good faith” exception to law enforcement misconduct.  (Note:  In the interest of full disclosure, this author participated in drafting an amicus curiae brief in Reynolds on behalf of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers that opposed such a result.)

Jacumin represents one of Tennessee’s most celebrated state constitutional protections, requiring law enforcement officials in this State to establish a comparatively greater degree of confidence before obtaining search warrants.  Based on the Court’s recent jurisprudence, however, Jacumin’s continued survival (and the survival of myriad other precedential decisions) seems unlikely.  Regardless of the specific question involved, the Tennessee Supreme Court’s new philosophy is clear: no prior precedent bolstering the rights of the accused under Tennessee law – no matter how recent or long-established – stands on firm footing any longer.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com.

Like ScotBlog?  Join our email list or contact us here, or follow along on Twitter @Scot_Blog and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/scotblog.org

[1] 361 S.W.3d 490 (Tenn.2012).

[2] See, e.g., State v. Brown, 479 S.W.3d 200, 210 (Tenn. 2015) (“we are not required to accept the State’s concession and decline to do so in this instance. . . .  We are also not persuaded by Mr. Brown’s and the State’s interpretation of Rule 36.1, although we recognize that some panels of the Court of Criminal Appeals have embraced this interpretation of the rule.”).

[3] 403 S.W.3d 170 (Tenn. 2013).

[4] Daniel A. Horwitz, Revealing Disturbing Gap in Tennessee Law, Tennessee Supreme Court Rules that Allegedly Retarded Death Row Inmate Is Not Entitled to Prove that He’s Retarded, scotblog.org (Apr. 19, 2016), https://scotblog.org/2016/04/revealing-disturbing-gap-in-tennessee-law-tennessee-supreme-court-rules-that-allegedly-retarded-death-row-inmate-is-not-entitled-to-prove-that-hes-retarded/ (quoting Wlodarz v. State, 361 S.W.3d 490, 499 (Tenn. 2012)).

[5] Frazier v. State, No. M-2014-02374-SC-R-11-ECN, 2016 WL 3668035, at *1 (Tenn. July 7, 2016).

[6] Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-26-105(b).

[7] 361 S.W.3d at 504.

[8] Id. at 501-04.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 503.

[11] Id. at 504.

[12] Frazier, 2016 WL 3668035, at *2.

[13] Id. at *3.

[14] Id. at *6 (quoting Jordan v. Baptist Three Rivers Hosp., 984 S.W.2d 593, 599 (Tenn. 1999)).

[15] Id. (dissenting opinion) (quoting Kimble v. Marvel Entm’t, LLC, 135 S.Ct. 2401, 2409 (2015)).

[16]  Id. (quotations and citations omitted).

[17] Id. at *7 (citations omitted).