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State v. Skipwith

Supreme Court of Connecticut

August 15, 2017

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.
JUSTIN SKIPWITH

          Argued April 5, 2017

         Procedural History

         Writ of error from the decision of the Superior Court in the judicial district of Waterbury, Fasano, Js., dismissing the plaintiff in error's petition for a writ of error coram nobis and dismissing the plaintiff in error's motion to vacate the defendant's sentence, brought to this court, which transferred the matter to the Appellate Court, Gruendel, Alvord and Mullins, Js.; judgment dismissing the writ or error, from which the plaintiff in error, on the granting of certification, appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Jeffrey D. Brownstein, for the appellant (plaintiff in error Tabatha Cornell).

          Denise B. Smoker, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Maureen Platt, state's attorney, and Jason Germain, senior assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (defendant in error state's attorney for the judicial district of Waterbury).

          Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Eveleigh, McDonald, Espinosa, Robinson and D'Auria, Js. [*]

         Syllabus

         Pursuant to the victim's rights amendment set forth in the state constitution (Conn. Const., amend. XXIX [b]), in a criminal prosecution, the victim has the right to make a statement to the court objecting to or supporting any plea agreement prior to the court's acceptance of that plea, and to make a statement to the court at sentencing.

         The plaintiff in error, whose daughter had died as a result of the defendant's criminal conduct, filed a writ of error in this court, claiming that the trial court had improperly dismissed her motion to vacate the defendant's sentence. The plaintiff in error had not been afforded an opportunity to object to the plea agreement between the defendant and the defendant in error, the state's attorney for the judicial district of Waterbury, or to make a statement at the defendant's sentencing. After learning that the defendant had been sentenced, the plaintiff in error filed her motion to vacate the defendant's sentence on the ground that her rights under the victim's rights amendment had been violated. The trial court concluded that the defendant's sentence was not illegal and dismissed the motion for lack of jurisdiction. After this court transferred the writ of error to the Appellate Court, that court dismissed the writ of error, concluding that the rule of practice (§ 43-22) providing that a court may correct an illegal sentence or a sentence imposed in an illegal manner did not authorize the trial court to vacate the defendant's sentence. The Appellate Court reasoned that the plaintiff in error provided no authority supporting the proposition that the defendant's sentence was imposed in an illegal manner because it had violated of the victim's constitutional rights. On the granting of certification, the plaintiff in error appealed to this court, claiming that she was entitled to have the defendant's sentence vacated due to the fact that it was imposed in an illegal manner because she had not been afforded her rights under the victim's rights amendment. The defendant in error claimed, inter alia, that this court lacked jurisdiction over the writ of error because there was no express constitutional or statutory provision granting either this court or the Appellate Court jurisdiction over a writ of error seeking to enforce the victim's rights amendment. Held that this court had jurisdiction over the writ of error and had the authority to transfer it to the Appellate Court but upheld the Appellate Court's dismissal of the writ of error because it sought a form of relief that was barred by the victim's rights amendment: because a writ of error is a common-law remedy, the lack of any express constitutional or statutory authorization for a victim to file a writ of error from a ruling of the trial court implicating his or her rights under the victim's rights amendment did not affect this court's jurisdiction, as long as the victim fell within the class of persons entitled to file a writ of error and no constitutional or statutory provision deprived this court of jurisdiction; furthermore, the clauses in the victim's rights amendment providing that the legislature shall provide by law for its enforcement and that it shall not be construed as creating a basis for vacating a conviction or ground for appellate relief in any criminal case did not deprive this court of jurisdiction, as the legislative history of the amendment indicated that the legislature contemplated that victims would be able to seek relief in the courts and that appellate courts would have a role in interpreting and implementing the amendment, and the bar on appellate relief did not deprive this court of jurisdiction but, rather, prohibited this court from granting any relief that would directly affect the judgment in a criminal case or otherwise abridge the substantive rights of a defendant; moreover, although the plaintiff in error had standing to file the writ of error to enforce her constitutional rights, because she sought a form of relief that was barred by the prohibition on appellate relief contained in the victim's rights amendment, specifically, an order requiring the trial court to vacate the defendant's sentence, this court upheld the Appellate Court's dismissal of the writ of error on this alternative ground.

         (One justice concurring separately)

          OPINION

          ROGERS, C. J.

         The question that we must answer in this certified appeal is whether a crime victim who has been deprived of her state constitutional rights to object to a plea agreement between the state and the defendant and to make a statement at the sentencing hearing is entitled to have the defendant's sentence vacated so that she may attend a new sentencing hearing and give a statement. The defendant, Justin Skipwith, was charged with, inter alia, manslaughter in the second degree with a motor vehicle after the vehicle that he was driving struck and killed Brianna Washington, the daughter of the plaintiff in error, Tabatha Cornell. Although the plaintiff in error notified the defendant in error, the state's attorney for the judicial district of Waterbury (state), that she was invoking her rights as a victim of the crime pursuant to article first, § 8, of the Connecticut constitution, as amended by articles seventeen and twenty-nine of the amendments, [1] she was not afforded an opportunity to object to the plea agreement between the defendant and the state or to make a statement at the defendant's sentencing hearing. Thereafter, the plaintiff in error filed a motion to vacate the sentence, which the trial court dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.[2] The plaintiff in error then filed a writ of error claiming that the trial court improperly dismissed her motion to vacate the defendant's sentence, naming the state as the defendant in error.[3] See State v. Skipwith, 159 Conn.App. 502, 503, 123 A.3d 104 (2015). The Appellate Court determined that the trial court had properly concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to entertain the motion to vacate and dismissed the writ of error. Id., 512. We then granted the plaintiff in error's petition for certification to appeal.[4] We affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court on the alternative ground that the writ of error must be dismissed on the merits[5] because it seeks a form of relief that is barred by the victim's rights amendment. Accordingly, we need not reach the question of whether the Appellate Court properly found that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the plaintiff in error's motion to vacate the defendant's sentence.

         The undisputed facts of this case are set forth in the opinion of the Appellate Court; see id., 503-506; and need not be repeated here, as the state concedes that the plaintiff in error was denied her right under article first, § 8, as amended, to object to the plea and to give a statement at the defendant's sentencing. Conn. Const., amend. XXIX (b) (7) and (8). After learning that the defendant had been sentenced, the plaintiff in error filed a motion to vacate the sentence based on violations of the victim's rights amendment. The trial court conducted a hearing on the motion, at which the plaintiff in error and a family friend gave statements, and ultimately dismissed the motion for lack of jurisdiction on the ground that the sentence was not illegal. Id., 505-506.

         The plaintiff in error then filed this writ of error challenging the decision of the trial court. The Appellate Court concluded that the trial court properly had dismissed the motion to vacate the defendant's sentence, and then dismissed the writ of error on the merits. Id., 512. The Appellate Court reasoned that Practice Book § 43-22[6] authorizes the trial court to ‘‘correct a sentence imposed in an illegal manner, '' and the plaintiff in error had provided ‘‘no authority supporting the proposition that a defendant's sentence is imposed in an illegal manner . . . when the sentencing proceeding was conducted in violation of the victim's constitutional right to be present.'' (Citation omitted; emphasis in original; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 510-12. In addition, the Appellate Court observed that victims have no statutory authority to seek to vacate a defendant's conviction. Id., 512. This certified appeal followed.

         The plaintiff in error contends that, contrary to the Appellate Court's determination, because the defendant's sentence was imposed without affording her the right under article first, § 8, as amended, to give a statement at the defendant's sentencing, the sentence was ‘‘imposed in an illegal manner'' for purposes of Practice Book § 43-22, and, therefore, she was entitled to have the sentence vacated. The state contends that the Appellate Court correctly determined that the trial court had properly dismissed the plaintiff in error's motion to vacate the defendant's sentence and further claims, essentially as an alternative ground for affirmance, that, in the absence of any express constitutional or statutory provision, both the Appellate Court and this court lack jurisdiction to entertain a writ of error seeking to enforce the provisions of the victim's rights amendment. We conclude that this court had jurisdiction over the writ of error and, consequently, we had the authority to transfer it to the Appellate Court.[7] We also conclude, however, that the writ of error must be dismissed on the merits because it seeks a form of relief that is barred by the victim's rights amendment.[8]

         Because it implicates this court's appellate jurisdiction, we first address the state's claim that this court lacks authority to entertain a writ of error seeking to enforce the victim's rights amendment because neither the state constitution nor any statute expressly confers such authority. This is a question of law over which our review is plenary. See Pritchard v. Pritchard, 281 Conn. 262, 274-75, 914 A.2d 1025 (2007) (whether party ‘‘properly invoked the jurisdiction of the Appellate Court is a question of law subject to plenary review'').

         In support of its contention that this court lacks jurisdiction over a writ of error seeking to enforce the victim's rights amendment, the state relies primarily on this court's decision in State v. Gault, 304 Conn. 330, 39 A.3d 1105 (2012). In that case, the victim[9] appealed from an order of the trial court requiring that an affidavit supporting the arrest warrant for the defendant, which had been redacted to remove information that could identify the victim, be unsealed. Id., 335-36. She contended, among other things, that this order violated her right under article first, § 8, as amended, to be treated with fairness and respect throughout the criminal justice process. Id., 336; see also Conn. Const., amend. XXIX (b) (1). The state claimed on appeal that, because the victim was not a party to the criminal proceeding, she had no standing to appeal. State v. Gault, supra, 333, 337-38. This court agreed with the state. Id., 338. We observed in Gault that ‘‘except insofar as the constitution bestows upon this court jurisdiction to hear certain cases . . . the subject matter jurisdiction of . . . this court is governed by statute.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 339. We then noted that the victim's rights amendment did not contain a right to appeal from a ruling by the trial court implicating the rights created by that amendment. Id. We further noted that the statute authorizing appeals, General Statutes § 52-263, provided that the remedy of appeal was available only to parties to the case. Id., 342. Finally, we observed that, although Public Acts 1998, No. 98-231, § 2, as amended by Public Acts 2001, No. 01-211, § 12, codified at General Statutes § 46a-13c (5), authorized the Office of the Victim Advocate to ‘‘[f]ile a limited special appearance in any court proceeding for the purpose of advocating for any right guaranteed [by the victim's rights amendment or] the general statutes, '' the legislature did not intend that victims would have full party status or the right to appeal from rulings of the trial court. See State v. Gault, supra, 347. Accordingly, we concluded that victims were not parties with standing to appeal from an order in a criminal case, and we dismissed the victim's appeal. Id., 348.

         In the present case, the state contends that Gault stands for the proposition that, because the victim's rights amendment contains no self-executing remedial procedures; see id., 340-41; if the legislature has not expressly provided a remedy by which the rights protected by that constitutional provision may be vindicated, no such remedy exists.[10] Our decision in Gault, however, was premised on the principle that the right of appeal is created purely by statute. See id., 339. Because no statute provides victims with a right to appeal from rulings of the trial court, no such right exists. In contrast, a writ of error is a common-law remedy. See, e.g., State v. McCahill, 261 Conn. 492, 499-500, 811 A.2d 667 (2002) (‘‘[t]he writ of error . . . is a concept deeply rooted in our common law'' and ‘‘the right to bring a writ of error . . . exists independent of [any] statutory authorization'' [citations omitted; footnote omitted; internal quotation marks omitted]); State v. Assuntino, 173 Conn. 104, 112, 376 A.2d 1091 (1977) (‘‘The writ [of error] has long lain to this court . . . in accordance with statutes which have been merely declaratory of the common law. It is therefore concluded that the writ, at common law, lies to this court . . . .''); State v. Caplan, 85 Conn. 618, 622, 84 A. 280 (1912) (‘‘[t]he writ of error is the common-law method . . . of carrying up a cause from an inferior to a higher court for the revision of questions of law''). Thus, unlike in Gault, the lack of any express constitutional or statutory authorization for a victim to file a writ of error from a ruling of the trial court implicating his or her rights under the victim's rights amendment does not affect the victim's right to file a writ of error or this court's jurisdiction to entertain it. Rather, in the absence of any constitutional provision or statute depriving this court of its common-law jurisdiction over writs of error, [11] this court has jurisdiction if a victim falls within the class of persons who are entitled to file a writ of error.

         The state has not claimed that any statute deprives this court of its jurisdiction over writs of error seeking relief for a violation of the victim's rights amendment, and we conclude that nothing in the state constitution does so. Article first, § 8, as amended, provides in relevant part: ‘‘The general assembly shall provide by law for the enforcement of this subsection. Nothing in this subsection or in any law enacted pursuant to this subsection shall be construed as creating a basis for vacating a conviction or ground for appellate relief in any criminal case.'' Conn. Const., amend. XXIX (b). With respect to the first quoted sentence, that provision merely authorizes the legislature to enforce through legislation the rights created by the constitutional provision. It does not abrogate the basic constitutional obligation of courts to interpret and implement constitutional provisions.[12] See Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 177, 2 L.Ed. 60 (1803) (‘‘[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is''). Indeed, to the extent that there is any ambiguity as to whether the constitutional provision deprives courts of their authority to adjudicate claims arising from the victim's rights amendment, the legislative history reveals that the legislature expressly contemplated that victims would be able to seek relief both in the trial court and in the appellate courts.[13]

         The second quoted sentence, providing that the victim's rights amendment shall not be ‘‘construed as creating a basis for vacating a conviction or ground for appellate relief in any criminal case''; Conn. Const., amend. XXIX (b); also does not deprive the appellate courts entirely of their authority to interpret and implement the constitutional provision. First, as we have indicated, the legislative history of the provision clearly indicates that the legislature contemplated that both the trial courts and the appellate courts would have a role in interpreting and implementing it. See footnote 13 of this opinion. Second, in ordinary usage, the phrase ‘‘appellate relief'' connotes relief granted on appeal from a judgment disposing of the case, not relief provided to a nonparty in connection with a collateral issue that will not directly affect the substantive issues or the ultimate disposition of the case. See State v. Moore, 158 Conn. 461, 463, 262 A.2d 166 (1969) (‘‘[a]n appeal lies only from a final judgment, and there can be no judgment in a criminal case until sentence is pronounced''). Indeed, the legislative history indicates that the purpose of the provision barring ‘‘appellate relief'' was to ensure that any relief provided would not deprive defendants of their existing substantive rights; its purpose was not to deprive victims of any appellate redress for a violation of their rights, even when providing relief would not affect the judgment or the rights of the defendant.[14] Third, we can perceive no reason why, before the victim's rights amendment was adopted, a victim could not have obtained relief by filing a writ of error in this court to vindicate rights conferred by chapter 968 of the General Statutes governing victim services, including the right to present a statement to the prosecutor and the trial court prior to the acceptance of a plea and the right to submit a statement to the prosecutor before sentencing.[15] See General Statutes § 54-203 (b) (7) (B) and (C). There is no evidence, and it would be anomalous to conclude, that the victim's rights amendment was intended to eliminate preexisting mechanisms for obtaining such relief from this court. Rather, it is reasonable to conclude that the bar on appellate relief was intended to be the constitutional equivalent to General Statutes § 54-223, which provides that the ‘‘[f]ailure to afford the victim of a crime any of the rights provided pursuant to any provision of the general statutes shall not constitute grounds for vacating an otherwise lawful conviction or voiding an otherwise lawful sentence or parole determination.''[16]

         We conclude, therefore, that the bar on appellate relief set forth in article first, § 8, as amended, merely prohibits this court from granting any relief that would directly affect the judgment in a criminal case or otherwise abridge the substantive rights of a defendant.[17]Accordingly, we conclude that this provision does not deprive this court of its jurisdiction over writs of error arising from the victim's rights amendment.

         With this background in mind, we must address an issue that we left unresolved in our decision in Gault. Specifically, we stated in that case that it was unclear whether the prohibition on appellate relief contained in article first, § 8, as amended, ‘‘is intended to apply to victims or only to criminal defendants.'' State v. Gault, supra, 304 Conn. 339-40 n.12. Our conclusion here that the prohibition on appellate relief was intended to bar any form of relief that would directly affect the judgment or abridge the defendant's rights makes it clear, however, that the focus of the prohibition is on the substance of the relief, not on the identity of the party seeking the relief. Accordingly, we now conclude that the prohibition was intended to apply to any person seeking a prohibited form of relief, including victims. Similarly, because the prohibition goes to the substance of the relief sought, and not to the vehicle by which the relief is sought, we conclude that, to the extent that there is any doubt as to whether a writ of error is technically a form of appellate relief in this context, the constitutional prohibition imposes the same limitations on writs of error that it would impose on appeals by victims, if they were statutorily authorized. See State v. Caplan, supra, 85 Conn. 622; see also State v. Salmon, 250 Conn. 147, 153-54, 735 A.2d 333 (1999) (writ of error is proper vehicle for appellate review when party is unable to appeal).

         Thus, what our analysis also makes clear is that, although the plaintiff in error has standing to file the writ of error, [18] she seeks a form of relief-an order requiring the trial court to vacate the defendant's sentence-that is barred by the prohibition on appellate relief contained in the victim's rights amendment. Although the victim's rights amendment does not deprive victims of their right to file a writ of error to enforce their constitutional rights, it also does not expand their rights to seek a form of appellate relief that previously had been barred by statute. Because victims were barred by § 54-223 from seeking to vacate a criminal sentence for the violation of their rights when the victim's rights amendment was adopted; see footnote 16 of this opinion;[19] we conclude that this form of relief is barred, and, therefore, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court on this alternative ground.[20]

         The judgment of the Appellate Court is affirmed.

          In this opinion PALMER, EVELEIGH, ESPINOSA, ROBINSON and D'AURIA, Js., concurred.

          McDONALD, J., concurring in the judgment.

         The victim's rights amendment to our state constitution was adopted to ensure that crime victims would no longer be relegated to the sidelines as largely silent, passive observers of a process in which their sole role was as witness and informant.[1] See Conn. Const., amend. XXIX (b). However, because the courts are barred from construing it to create a basis for any form of appellate relief and the legislature has not enacted any enforcement mechanisms in accordance with the constitutional directive, the promise of the amendment is largely illusory under the law as it currently stands. This state of affairs undermines the foundational principle, declared more than 200 years ago, that a government of laws ‘‘will certainly cease to deserve this high appellation, if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right.'' Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 163 (1803). In light of the constitutional and statutory constraints on this court, I agree with the majority that this court lacks the authority to grant the form of relief sought by ...


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