Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Rentschler v. Nixon[1]

Opinion handed down April 6, 2010, modified on court’s own motion May 11, 2010.
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Supreme Court of Missouri held (1) there is no constitutional right to early release from prison; (2) Mo. HB 974 (1990) deals with only one subject: “relating to the department of corrections”; (3) ex post facto considerations only apply to criminal matters; and (4) section 558.011 does not implicate a vested right nor create a new disability.

I. Facts and Holding

In Rentschler, inmates, as appellants, claimed that a 1990 amendment removing conditional release eligibility for inmates convicted of certain violent felonies violated the Missouri and Federal constitutions.[2] The inmates argued that the law violated the ex post facto clause, substantive due process, and the Missouri prohibition of retrospective laws.[3] Furthermore, the inmates claimed that the “bills were passed with constitutionally deficient procedure.”[4] The circuit court upheld the statute as constitutional and dismissed the claims.[5] The inmates appealed and the Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed.[6]

A. The Appellants and Arguments

A jury convicted Charles Rentschler, Kenneth Charron, and Roger Nolan (“the Rentschler group”) of various violent felonies and sentenced each to life in prison.[7] A court convicted James Laney (“Laney”) “of aggravated rape and sentenced him as a persistent offender to 30 years without the possibility of probation or parole.”[8]

At the time of sentencing, “the conditional release statute . . . was silent [as to] whether violent felons were eligible for conditional release.”[9] It was not until 1990, after appellants’ convictions, that the legislature amended the conditional release statute and removed from its purview those convicted of “dangerous felonies as defined in section 556.061.”[10] Section 556.061 includes felonies applicable to the Rentschler group and Laney, thus preventing the inmates from achieving a conditional release.[11]

The appellants presented four arguments. First, both Laney and the Rentschler group “argue[d] that the amendment violates substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by ‘adding additional time of incarceration.’”[12] Second, the Rentschler group argued that the legislature modified the subject matter of section 558.011 and that it was comprised of multiple subjects, which violated the Missouri Constitution. [13] Third, Laney argued that the changes created “an ex post facto law violating the federal and Missouri constitutions.”[14] Finally, both urged the court “that the amendment violates the prohibition on laws retrospective in operation under . . . the Missouri Constitution.”[15]

B. The Holdings

The trial court found for the state in both cases and held that section 558.011 is valid under the United States and Missouri constitutions.[16] The Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed both judgments.[17]

Dispelling the substantive due process argument, Chief Justice Price concluded that “‘[t]here is no constitutional or inherent right to early release from prison.’”[18] Furthermore, “where the right exists only by state law, it is not protected by substantive due process and ‘may constitutionally be rescinded so long as the elements of procedural due process are observed.’” [19]

Applying the doctrine of laches, the court denied appellants’ argument that the amendment changed the subject matter of section 558.011 and that it contained multiple subjects.[20] In dicta, the court rejected the argument that the bill deals with multiple subjects, finding both “conditional release” and “sentencing” to be “relating to the department of corrections.”[21]

The court found a distinction between sentence terms and conditional terms of incarceration.[22] Essentially, “modification of the conditional term cannot affect the sentence term” originally imposed on Laney and the Rentschler group.[23] Thus, the ex post facto clause had not been violated because the amendment did not change the “actual sentence terms”.[24]

Finally, the Missouri Constitution prohibits a law that creates a new disability or impairs a vested right.[25] The conditional release statute vests a right in the board of probation and parole; it does not create a vested right in an inmate.[26] Likewise, no new disability is created by the law.[27]

II. Legal Background

The Supreme Court of the United States, in Greenholtz v. Inmates of Nebraska Penal and Correctional Complex, held that “[t]here is no constitutional or inherent right to early release from prison.”[28] In Missouri, a right is not protected by substantive due process if it is created only by state law; it may constitutionally be rescinded so long as procedural due process is satisfied.[29]

The procedural limitations under Article III §§ 21-23 of the Missouri Constitution were not enacted to create a way to attack the constitutionality of a statute.[30] Article III, section 21 provides that “no bill shall be so amended in its passage through either house as to change its original purpose.”[31] A proper attack requires comparison between the purpose of the bill as introduced and the bill as actually passed.[32] Article III, section 23 requires that “no bill shall contain more than one subject.”[33] While Missouri courts have used this clause to declare an act of the legislature unconstitutional and sever a section from a bill,[34] the applicable test looks at “whether all provisions of the bill fairly relate to the same subject, have a natural connection therewith or are incidents or means to accomplish its purpose.”[35]

The Federal and Missouri constitutions prohibit ex post facto laws.[36] However, in 1798 the Supreme Court of the United States held that the prohibition against ex post facto laws only applies to criminal matters.[37] Significantly, the statute at issue, section 558.011 recognizes a distinction between a “sentence term” and a “conditional release term.”[38] Since nothing in the 1990 amendment to section 558.011 affected the appellants’ sentences, only the conditional release terms, there was no violation of the ex post facto clause.

The Missouri Constitution prohibits a law that “creates a new obligation, imposes a new duty, or attaches a new disability with respect to transactions or considerations already past.”[39] The Constitution also prohibits a law that impairs a vested right.[40] According to Cooper v. Holden, inmates have no right of conditional release until the parole board actually issues a date for conditional release.[41] The board of probation and parole is vested with the right to use the conditional release program as a way to manage the Department of Corrections’ prison populations.[42] The board never issued any appellant a date of conditional release, and therefore no inmate held any vested right.

III. Comment

Among other things, the instant decision draws to mind the Hammerschmidt Rule, which gave teeth to Article III § 23 of the Missouri Constitution in 1994.[43] In Hammerschmidt v. Boone County, the Missouri legislature passed a bill modifying election procedures in the state.[44] However, it tacked on an unrelated provision allowing counties to enact their own constitutions.[45] Hammerschmidt sued the county, alleging a violation of the procedural requirement that no bill contain more than one subject.[46]

One could argue that, in the years after the Hammerschmidt decision, the Missouri legislature has not paid adequate heed to the rule. Indeed, “single subject litigation” has increased over the past fifteen years, as well as the number of bills struck down by the Supreme Court of Missouri.[47] However, the legislature occasionally corrects itself of its own accord.

For example, in 2009 the Missouri legislature attached to a bill a measure naming a segment of Interstate 64 the “Jack Buck Memorial Highway” after the famed St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster.[48] The legislature introduced the bill to modify the law regarding courts and judicial proceedings.[49] Almost certainly, the bill would have been struck down under the Hammerschmidt Rule. Then again, who spends the time and resources to challenge something so inconsequential? To its credit, the legislature discovered the potential violation, and Jack Buck’s memorial found its own home in the Roads and Waterways chapters.[50]

While the uncontroversial and unanimous Rentschler v. Nixon may not break any new ground in Missouri law, it does serve as a reminder to the Missouri legislature: Hammerschmidt is always watching.

-Chris Dandurand

[1] No. SC90285 (Mo. April 6, 2010). The West reporter citation is Rentschler v. Nixon, 311 S.W.3d 783 (Mo. banc 2010). Rentschler was decided on consolidation with Laney v. Nixon, No. SC90418 (Mo. banc 2010).
[2] Id. at *1.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9]Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.011 (1978).
[10] Rentschler, 2010 WL 1332432, at *1 (citing Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.011.4 (Supp. 1990)).
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.; Mo. Const. art. III §§ 21, 23.
[14] Rentschler, 2010 WL 1332432, at *1.
[15] Id.; Mo. Const. art. I § 13.
[16] Rentschler, 2010 WL 1332432, at *1.
[17] Id.
[18] Id. at *2 (quoting State ex rel. Cavallaro v. Groose, 908 S.W.2d 133, 134 (Mo. banc 1995)).
[19] Id. (emphasis in original).
[20] Id. Laches is “neglect for unreasonable and unexplained length of time, under circumstances permitting diligence, to do what in law should have been done.” Hagley v. Bd. of Educ. of Webster Groves Sch. Dist., 841 S.W.2d 663, 669 (Mo. banc 1992). The Court noted that Mo. Rev. Stat. § 516.500 is a statute of limitations that would have time-barred the claims, had the State raised the argument. Id.
[21] Rentschler, 2010 WL 1332432, at *3.
[22] Id.
[23] Id.
[24] Id.
[25] Id.
[26] Id. at *4.
[27] Id.
[28] 442 U.S. 1, 7 (1979).
[29] State ex rel. Cavallaro v. Groose, 908 S.W.2d 133, 135-36 (Mo. banc 1995).
[30] Stroh Brewery Co. v. State, 954 S.W.2d 323, 326 (Mo. banc 1997). “This Court will resolve doubts in favor of the procedural and substantive validity of an act of the legislature.” Hammerschmidt v. Boone Cty., 877 S.W.2d 98, 102 (Mo. banc 1994).
[31] Mo. Const. art. III § 21.
[32] See Lincoln Credit Co. v. Peach, 636 S.W.2d 31, 38 (Mo. banc 1982).
[33] Mo. Const. art. III § 23.
[34] See Hammerschmidt, 877 S.W.2d at 104-05.
[35] Stroh Brewery Co., 954 S.W.2d at 327.
[36] U.S. Const. art. I § 10; Mo. Const. art. I § 13.
[37] Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. 386, 399 (1798).
[38] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.011.
[39] Squaw Creek Drainage Dist. No. 1 v. Turney, 138 S.W. 12, 16 (Mo. 1911).
[40] Jerry-Russel Bliss, Inc. v. Hazardous Waste Management Comm’n, 702 S.W.2d 77, 81 (Mo. banc 1985).
[41] 189 S.W.3d 614 (Mo. App. 2006).
[42] Rentschler, 2010 WL 1332432, at *3.
[43] See Hammerschmidt, 877 S.W.2d 98. “No bill shall contain more than one subject which shall be clearly expressed in its title.” Mo. Const. art. III § 23.
[44] 877 S.W.2d 98 (Mo. banc 1994).
[45] Id.
[46] Id.
[47] Alexander R. Knoll, Note, Tipping Point: Missouri Single Subject Provision, 72 Mo. L. Rev. 1387, 1393-94 (2007).
[48] 2009 Mo. HB 481.
[49] Id.
[50] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 227.409 (West 2010).