Category: The Supreme Court

Scalia: Fed courts flooded with “nickel and dime” cases

At an American Bar Association meeting in New Orleans this month, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia claimed that federal courts are increasingly bogged down with “nickel and dime” criminal cases as a result of  new criminal statutes enacted by lawmakers. The increase in criminal cases, Scalia argues, is turning the federal court into a “court of criminal appeals.” At the meeting, Scalia also offered his opinion on abortion, but avoided the topic of same-sex marriage. Check out coverage of the meeting by The Associated Press below. MWN

Scalia: Routine criminal cases clog federal courts

The Associated Press

The federal courts have become increasingly flooded with “nickel and dime” criminal cases that are better off resolved in state courts, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said Saturday.

Scalia told an American Bar Association meeting in New Orleans that he’s worried that the nation’s highest court is becoming a “court of criminal appeals.”

“This is probably true not just of my court, but of all the federal courts in general. A much higher percentage of what we do is criminal law, and I think that’s probably regrettable,” he said. “I think there’s too much routine criminal stuff that has been pouring into the federal courts that should have been left to the state courts.”

Scalia said civil dockets in some federal jurisdictions are lagging behind because criminal cases take precedence. He attributed the trend to lawmakers enacting new criminal statutes and bogging down the federal courts with “nickel and dime criminal cases that didn’t used to be there.” (more…)

Michael Morton case raises questions about prosecutorial accountability

By Alan Bean

This New York Times editorial touches on a case that will be familiar to readers of Scott Henson’s excellent Grits for Breakfast blog.  A few days ago, Scott provided this helpful summary of the Michael Morton imbroglio and its singular significance:

Grits recently named the Michael Morton exoneration out of Williamson County the biggest Texas criminal justice story of 2011. Morton spent a quarter-century in prison for allegedly murdering his wife before he was exonerated by DNA and a team of won’t-quit attorneys who fought Williamson County DA John Bradley over testing the evidence for six long years (prevailing only after the Legislature changed the law to remove Bradley’s grounds for objection). It turned out prosecutors 25 years ago had failed to release exculpatory evidence to the defense, and the man who apparently did so, then-elected DA Ken Anderson, is today a sitting Williamson County District Judge. You really can’t make this stuff up!

John Bradley is currently locked in a tight election race that will tell us how the good people of Williamson County (reputedly the most tuff-on-crime county in one of America’s most tuff-on-crime states) feel about the gross injustice perpetrated in their name.

But, as the NYT editorial below correctly observes, this isn’t just a story about a single county or a single state; the Michael Morton case is an egregious example of business as usual in our legal system.  It isn’t that all prosecutors routinely withhold exculpatory evidence from defense counsel (most do not); but if they do, the crime is rarely uncovered, and even when the truth is exposed there is little anyone can, or will, do about it.

In a few weeks I will be telling you how the DEA and the DOJ conspired to convict Ramsey Muniz of a crime he could not possibly have committed.  It all began with an investigative report riddled with baldfaced lies.  A DEA agent reported that her attention was drawn to Muniz by Ramada Inn employees who called to report suspicious behavior.  This report became the foundation for a widely circulated Houston Chronicle story (Muniz once ran for governor, so his legal woes attracted considerable attention) and the basis of the government’s case.  

This story was accepted as bedrock truth until attorney Dick DeGuerin decided to chat with the employees at the Ramada Inn.  They hadn’t been suspicious of Muniz at all, they told the Houston attorney, in fact, the polite businessman had been a model guest.  Furthermore, the Ramada Inn hadn’t contacted the DEA, the DEA contacted the motel. 

When it became clear that a DEA agent had repeatedly perjured herself, the government simply adjusted its story on the fly as the presiding Judge pretended not to notice.

That’s the real problem with prosecutorial misconduct–nobody cares–at least nobody with the power to do anything about it.   If you don’t believe me, read on.     (more…)

The slow death of the 14th amendment

Richard Beeman

On May 4, amateur historian David Barton appeared on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.  Barton’s central argument was that, constitutionally, the first amendment applies to the federal government but not to the states.  Therefore, if individual states and municipalities see fit to make the Bible the sole standard for criminal and civil law, to reinstate chattel slavery or to make Christianity an official and protected religion, the federal government can do nothing about it.

Barton didn’t suggest that non-federal governments should do these things, merely that they can if they want to.

On May 14th, Jon Stewart invited Richard Beeman, an actual constitutional scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, to respond to Barton’s theory. (more…)

Supreme Court tells California to cut prison population by 33,000

Prison overcrowdingBy Alan Bean

A Supreme Court ruling will soon force the state of California to reduce its prison population by at least 33,000.  Noting that the state prison system was built for an inmate population of 80,000, the five justices in favor of this move noted that, at one point, the Golden State was housing 160,000 prisoners.

The big question, of course, is how the state will comply with this ruling.  Dissenting justices like Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito predict that the streets will run with blood if 33,000 offenders are suddenly returned to the streets.  Apparently, conservative justices feel it is okay for  California to stack human beings like cord wood. (more…)

Supreme Court ruling shreds fourth amendment

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

By Alan Bean

The Supreme Court of the United States just gave police officers permission to evade the fourth amendment at will.  Eight justices signed off on this deal; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented forcefully.

At issue is the meaning of the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Supreme Court has traditionally concluded that “searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.”  The only exception to this rule is when police are dealing with “exigent circumstances”.

What is an exigent circumstance?  Risk of death of serious bodily injury qualifies as exigent.  The likely escape of a criminal suspect makes the grade.  Finally, police officers can smash open your door if they have reason to believe that evidence is being destroyed.

But there used to be a catch.  Police officers were not allowed to create an exigent circumstance by banging on the door or shouting.  If signs that evidence was being destroyed inside a private dwelling existed when the police arrived at the scene, they could enter the home without a warrant; but they could not stimulate the destruction of evidence by announcing their presence.  (more…)

Head in the sand over prosecutorial misconduct

Law Professor Erwin Chemerinsky is dismayed by Supreme Court rulings that protect unscrupulous prosecutors from the consequences of their actions.  The Friends of Justice share this concern.  The pious doctrine that American citizens stand before the law as equals is a worthy aspirational goal, but it bears little relation to actual practice.  The title of this post is taken from the title of professor Chemerinsky’s article in the National Law Journal.

In the real world, American citizens are scattered along a continuum stretching from low-status black males (who can be prosecuted and convicted on the basis of uncorroborated snitch testimony) all the way to prosecutors and judges whose professional behavior, no matter how flagrantly illegal, cannot be prosecuted at all.  We cannot admit that some can be convicted without real evidence (ala Tulia) while others smoking-gun isn’t enough to put people like Terry McEarchern (Tulia, TX), Brett Grayson (AUSA, Western Louisiana) and Harry Connick Sr. (New Orleans) out of business.  (more…)

Innocent man: Why has the system left my prosecutor free to re-offend?

By Alan Bean

Sometimes innocent people go to prison even though everyone in the legal system behaves with integrity.  But what happens when a wrongful conviction results from a prosecutor sitting on a pile of exculpatory evidence?  Shouldn’t the man we pay to represent the state be held accountable? 

I wish this was a hypothetical question; it isn’t.  In this gripping op-ed for the New York Times, John Thompson tells us how it feels to come within a whisker of the electric chair.  He also explains the prosecutorial misconduct that placed him in that situation and wonders aloud why the Supreme Court of the United States thinks its okay for prosecutors to withhold evidence.

The Prosecution Rests, but I Can’t

John Thompson

I SPENT 18 years in prison for robbery and murder, 14 of them on death row. I’ve been free since 2003, exonerated after evidence covered up by prosecutors surfaced just weeks before my execution date. Those prosecutors were never punished. Last month, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 to overturn a case I’d won against them and the district attorney who oversaw my case, ruling that they were not liable for the failure to turn over that evidence — which included proof that blood at the robbery scene wasn’t mine. (more…)

Supreme Court justices wash their hands of the Troy Davis case

Laura Moye of Amnesty International and Kathryn Hamoudah of Georgians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty address a Troy Davis rally in Atlanta

By deciding not to hear further appeals in the Troy Davis case, the Supreme Court of the United States has given Georgia officials a green light to proceed to execution.  But nothing is simple when issues of life and death are on the line.  

Georgia won’t be able to proceed directly with an execution because their supply of sodium thiopental, a powerful anesthetic that is the first of three shots administered during lethal injection in Georgia and dozens of other states, was recently seized by federal authorities.  The producer of sodium thiopental announced that it would no longer be exporting the drug to the United States because their product was intended to cure, not kill.  Georgia is one of several states that appears to have procured quantities of the drug illegally from a sketchy outfit in the United Kingdom. (more…)

NPR and the American Mainstream

National Public Radio CEO, Vivian Schiller, has resigned after two high-profile NPR executives were caught on tape saying that the Republican Party had been “hijacked” by the Tea Party and that the Tea Party was essentially a white-only organization dominated by gun-toting zealots on the racist fringes of American society.

Ms. Schiller had been criticized last October for what many considered her ungracious and impolitic response to the Juan Williams fiasco.

Most of the controversial remarks caught on video were nade by Ronald Schiller (no relation to Ms. Schiller).  Mr.  Schiller had been invited to a fancy luncheon by two Republican provocateurs posing as deep-pocket Muslim activists representing a mythical Muslim group that was supposedly planning to give NPR a $5 million gift.

The timing of this latest fiasco couldn’t be worse.  Leading Republicans have been arguing that NPR was far too left-of-center to receive federal support.  According to this argument, it’s okay for FOX News to slant its reporting to the right because it is a private agency.  The liberal bias of NPR is a more serious matter, critics contend, because the organization is feeding at the federal teat. (more…)

Supreme Court hands Hank Skinner a big victory

By Alan Bean

Monday’s ruling by the Supreme Court has removed legal roadblocks standing between Texas death row defendant Hank Skinner and the testing of DNA evidence he says will exonerate him.  Prosecutors had argued that since Skinner was covered in the blood of the murder victim, no further testing was necessary.  Skinner’s defenders have asked why, if further DNA is unlikely to produce evidence helpful to Skinner, the state is so adamantly opposed to testing.

At NPR, Nina Totenberg provides her usual just-the-facts-ma’am analysis.  Dave Mann’s comments at the Texas Observer site reveal the deeper significance of this ruling: (more…)