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United States v. Brierley

decided: November 6, 1972.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA EX REL. WALTER HENDERSON, APPELLANT,
v.
JOSEPH R. BRIERLEY, SUPT., STATE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION, PITTSBURGH, PA.



Seitz, Chief Judge, and Hastie and Hunter, Circuit Judges.

Author: Seitz

Opinion OF THE COURT

SEITZ, Chief Judge.

Appellant, a state prisoner, appeals from the district court's denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

In 1953, appellant pled guilty to murder before the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas. After the entry of his plea, but prior to sentencing, he testified at the trial of two codefendants about matters relevant to his own conviction. This testimony was then introduced against him at his "degree of guilt" hearing, after which he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 1968, appellant filed a petition under the state's Post Conviction Hearing Act attacking his sentence on several grounds; his court appointed counsel added additional ones. The Court of Common Pleas held a hearing at which appellant and his original trial attorneys testified, after which it dismissed the petition. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed. Commonwealth v. Henderson, 441 Pa. 255, 272 A.2d 182 (1971). Appellant then filed the instant petition in the district court. In turn, the court referred it to a magistrate for a report on the merits and a recommendation as to the need for an evidentiary hearing.

The Magistrate filed a report, finding the petition without merit; this report was a comprehensive, well-reasoned analysis of appellant's petition reflecting exhaustive research into both the trial record and applicable law. Thereafter, the court entered its order, stating:

Upon review of the petition and the report and recommendation of the Magistrate . . ., the court finds that the allegations contained in the petition are of no merit.

Appellant filed a petition for rehearing with the district court, alleging that it did not have the authority to refer a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to a magistrate for a report and recommendation. Alternatively, he alleged that if the power to refer were granted by statute, the statute was unconstitutional. Rehearing was denied, but the district court granted a certificate of probable cause to this court. Obviously, prompt review of the administrative issues posed by the appellant is important to the administration of justice in the district courts.

I. THE CONSTITUTIONALITY OF THE STATUTE.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(3) [1971], the district court can assign magistrates the duty of "preliminary review of applications for posttrial relief . . . and submission of a report and recommendations to facilitate the decision of the district judge . . . as to whether there should be a hearing." Thus, Congress clearly intended to give the district court the power it exercised in assigning defendant's petition to the Magistrate. Therefore, the critical issue before this court is appellant's challenge to the constitutionality of § 636(b)(3), pursuant to which the district court acted.

Section 636(b)(3) permits the district court to refer a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to a magistrate for a report on its merits and a recommendation as to whether an evidentiary hearing should be held. When he returns his report, including his findings and recommendations, the district judge is free, after review, to accept, reject, or modify any of the magistrate's findings or recommendations. Consequently, the power given to and exercised by the magistrate neither usurps the power of the district court in making the ultimate determination as to whether an evidentiary hearing should be held nor unconstitutionally delegates judicial power to a non-Article III officer.

The language of the order here reviewed makes clear the district court discharged its independent obligations after due consideration of the law and the record. Thus, no issue of unconstitutional delegation or usurpation appears in this record.*fn1 Nor, contrary to appellant's contention, is a magistrate ...


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