By Elizabeth DeFrance

On July 13, 2015 the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case United States v. McRae.  The issue before the Court was whether the district court improperly categorized the appellant’s pro se motion as an impermissible successive habeas petition. However, the threshold issue was whether the Court was required to obtain a Certificate of Appealability (COA) before it could review the district court’s categorization of the appellant’s motion.

McRae Claims his Motion was Improperly Categorized

Madison Duane McRae (McRae) was convicted of four drug-related charges in 2005. He unsuccessfully filed a habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 in 2008. He later filed the motion at issue in this case, titled “Motion for Relief from Judgment 60(b)(1)(3)(6).”  In this motion, McRae alleged the district court made five errors in its  § 2255 proceedings. The district court held that the motion was a successive § 2255 motion and dismissed it for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction because McRae did not first get a COA as required under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b)(3). The district court declined to issue a COA. McRae appealed and claims that the district court erred by not treating his motion as a mixed 60(b)/ § 2255. He also argued that the circuit court could review this issue without first obtaining a COA.

COA is Not Required for a “True 60(b)”

A 60(b) motion that challenges a defect in a federal court’s habeas proceedings rather than the court’s conclusion based on the merits is a “true 60(b) motion” and does not require a COA.

The Court Follows Gonzales and Harbison

The Court looked to the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzalez v. Crosby, in which it held that a 60(b) motion must be treated distinctly from a successive habeas motion because of the “unquestionably valid role” they play in habeas actions. The Court also followed reasoning from the Supreme Court decision in Harbison v. Bell that only a 60(b) motion “with a sufficient nexus to the merits of a habeas petition” should require a COA. Thus, the Court determined that denial of a 60(b) requires a COA because the district court necessarily considers the merits of the underlying habeas claim before denying the motion. However, dismissal of a 60(b) motion on jurisdictional grounds does not require a COA because it is far removed from a consideration of the merits of the habeas claim.

COA was Not Required and the 60(b) Claim Must be Considered on the Merits

The Court held that it did not need a COA before addressing whether the district court erred in categorizing McRae’s motion as a successive habeas petition.

The Court further held that when a motion contains both a 60(b) and a successive habeas claim, the district court must allow the petitioner the option to delete the improper claim and have the 60(b) claim decided on the merits. Because the district court was in the best position to judge the merits of McRae’s 60(b) claim, the Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz dissented because the majority’s holding departed from precedent.

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