Posts Tagged ‘civil rights’

A Tiny Bit More on Qualified Immunity

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Last summer, I made a little ‘splainer for the Washington Post briefly explaining how Qualified Immunity works (and doesn’t). [Link] This afternoon, a very nice reporter reached out to me for some followup. She’s doing a longer piece on QI, and had some questions specifically about the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence here. I dashed off a quick email response — by which I mean one that I didn’t take the time to tighten up. But re-reading it, I get the feeling that with a bit of research, some fleshing out of ideas, it might have the beginnings of a halfway decent law review article. (There are so many I want to write.)

But I don’t have time to write one now. And my email was too long for there to be any likelihood of it getting quoted in full, if at all. So I figured I’d share it here and give you all a chance to tell me exactly what I got wrong. And then when I do get around to writing that article… never mind. Here’s the copypasta:

Questions:

1.      I recently spoke with a con law scholar who said the Supreme Court is “fascinated” with the topic and takes cases that don’t even seem that important. What do you think?

2.      Recent Supreme Court  decisions on the topic are generally summary reversals of circuit court decisions denying qualified immunity. Why do you think the Court isn’t issuing more merits decisions?

3.      Although the Court says it doesn’t correct errors in individual cases, they seem to be doing that in this area. Please comment.

4.      Regarding the circuit courts, do you have any statistics (or a resource) about which ones consistently deny qualified immunity?

5.      The Court repeatedly finds that there isn’t “clearly established” law to deny qualified immunity but it doesn’t issue further guidance on what clearly established law is. Why do you think this is?

Response:

1, 2, 3, and 5 are related. I don’t have anything to offer for #4, sadly.

First, a little background. After §1983 was passed in 1871, it didn’t have the same meaning and scope that it does today. Not until the 1961 Supreme Court decision of Monroe v. Pope, which really gave new life to the statute. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Court expanded the statute’s applicability and made it easier to sue a state actor in federal court. By the end of the 1970s, §1983 had become the go-to statute for civil rights lawsuits.

But starting in the 1980s, the Court had a change of heart. Now it seemed focused on undercutting the scope and effect of §1983. For example, civil rights lawsuits are basically torts — constitutional torts — but the Court replaced tort standards of culpability with newer, harder standards of the Court’s own devising. Similarly, the Court decided that some things like false imprisonment and slander wouldn’t count as civil rights violations for §1983 purposes, so you’d have to sue under state tort law for those kinds of wrongs.

Among the limitations it added were newfangled ideas of “immunity” from being sued. In other words the government officials §1983 apparently let you sue couldn’t be sued. Judges and prosecutors got absolute immunity in the late 1970s, but Qualified Immunity for other officials wouldn’t be added until the mid-1980s.

The problem was, the Supreme Court made up Qualified Immunity out of whole cloth. They tried to find an existing legal principle to justify it, but when the law was enacted in 1871 there really wasn’t one. So they invented it. Instead of basing it on legal principles, they based it on “policy” principles, which translates to “what we think is best.”

That’s a problem. When the Court replaces what the law is with what it thinks the law ought to do, things get really messy. Cases get decided based on the desired outcome, rather than on the application of a consistent and predictable legal standard. When you see confusing, inconsistent, or irreconcilable lines of cases, this is often the explanation. The rulings meander because they’re rudderless.

Before the 1980s were out, the Court’s jurisprudence on Qualified Immunity was already confusing, and it was going through some real contortions to craft decisions that got the desired results.

I think that’s why they started acting like you suggest in 1, 2, 3, and 5. It got to be too much. The Court wanted outcomes, but was unwilling to go through the gymnastics necessary to justify those outcomes. Merits decisions require some reasoning, and also create precedent. Better to issue summary reversals, and avoid having to come up with contorted reasoning and confusing precedent. I’m only speculating here, but I bet I’m not too far wrong.

Why is their desired outcome generally in favor of granting immunity? There is likely a policy preference in favor of letting the police do what they do. The Court has made it clear in other lines of cases that it has a preference for letting the police gather and use evidence, for letting the police catch culprits. In the Qualified Immunity realm, the Justices are probably loath to create incentives that would undermine all that. As mentioned in the comic, if a cop’s afraid of getting sued for crossing the line, he’s not going to go anywhere near it. All kinds of evidence hecould have gotten, and culprits who could have been caught, will go free because the officer had a compelling personal reason to hold back. (This is precisely why the Exclusionary Rule works, by the way — rather than penalizing the officer personally for violating the 4th Amendment, we simply don’t let the government introduce evidence at trial it shouldn’t have had in the first place. The cop can go right up to the line and gather all the evidence the law allows, and the law only takes away what shouldn’t have been gotten. /digression.)

Okay, that would explain their chosen outcome. But it doesn’t explain why they’re bothering to act in the first place. Why take cases that don’t seem Earth-shaking? Why correct lower-court errors without establishing useful precedent? There I’d have to speculate again, but I strongly suspect that they feel that this is “doing the right thing,” because for decades the Court has wished Qualified Immunity didn’t even exist.

The lone dissent in the 1961 Monroe case was Justice Frankfurter. He said the Court was making this all up, that §1983 wasn’t about any of this — it was only supposed to have been used when your rights were violated by state law, not merely by a state actor. The statute was there to give you a remedy in cases where you couldn’t already sue under state law, because state law is what allowed the wrongdoing. Broadening the scope of §1983 meant the federal courts would be poking their noses in local affairs needlessly. But more than that, it would require the federal courts to make on-the-spot decisions about what our civil rights are, when they didn’t need to.

That was the lone dissent in 1961, but during the later Burger years and the Rehnquist years the Court seemed like they’d come around to his way of thinking. If that vote was held today, I bet the majority of the Court would hold that view.

So the short answer to all of this is probably “the Court wishes it didn’t have to, but it does what it does because it wants to.”

Very glib, I know. But I don’t have time for a longer (or shorter?) email with I’m sure better analysis. Hope it helps, though!

Q&A Dump

Friday, September 6th, 2013

I’m on the road today, but I wanted to post something. So I’m going to cheat and cut-and-paste some recent Q&A posts from my Tumblr. If you’re looking for a longer read, go check out my comic, which just completed a long section involving how the Fourth Amendment plays out during different kinds of car stops.

From today:

I don’t know all the facts, of course, and I’m not a Florida lawyer, but from what I’ve read it seems to me like the defense doesn’t have a winning argument here. It’s not unethical to make a losing argument, and lawyers often feel obligated to make every conceivable argument rather than lose an issue for appeal, or in the hope that something sticks — but it might be better to preserve your credibility with the court by choosing those arguments that at least have a teeny bit of merit.

“Stand your ground” laws say that, if you’re lawfully where you are, and someone is then and there about to kill or severely injure you, then even if you could have gotten away safely you’re allowed to use deadly force to defend yourself.

The “Bush Doctrine” is an application in international law of a basic principle of self-defense: you don’t have to wait for the other guy to hit you first before you defend yourself from the coming blow.

From what I understand of the Woodward case, he felt intimidated by these people, but was not in any immediate danger. Nobody was coming at him. Nobody was presently any threat to him.

Instead, he snuck up on a group of people at a barbecue, crawling on his belly to avoid detection. Then he fired a mess of rounds at them, hitting three and killing two. I don’t know what kind of weapon he had, but if the reported numbers of rounds are accurate, then he must have stopped to reload a few times.

This was not self-defense, because he was not in any actual danger at the time. At best, he was defending against some imagined possible future attack that might never have come. I get that he felt terribly harassed, but that’s not the same thing as an actual imminent attack. A hypothetical future attack is not an imminent one.

It was not stand your ground, because first of all he probably wasn’t lawfully there but was trespassing with intent to commit murder; and second of all because he wasn’t reacting to an attack.

The “Bush Doctrine” is just silly to cite, when there are plenty of self-defense cases to cite involving striking the first blow. But even there, the whole point is you’re about to get hit, and you’re defending yourself by making sure that blow doesn’t land on you.

From what I read, it looks like nothing less than cold-blooded premeditated murder, perhaps under great stress from a history of harassment, but in no way justified by it. Very similar to the “battered wife” scenario in my comic, actually.

—-

Just to make this long answer even longer, here are the playground rules I’ve drilled into my kids since they started school:

1. No matter how angry you get at someone, you’re not allowed to hit them.

2. If someone else is about to hurt you for real, first try to get away.

3. If you can’t get away, try to get a grownup to help you.

4. If you can’t get help, then I want you to hit first, I want you to hit hard, and you’re not allowed to stop hitting them until they can’t hit you any more. Let’s practice some moves.

I guess Woodward’s daddy never taught him that.

==========

From a couple of days ago:

This started out as an offshoot of my law blog, which has a similar disclaimer. It’s pretty standard for lawyers to state that their legal information isn’t legal advice, and just because you read it that doesn’t make you a client.

We’re all stating the obvious when we do that. (And no amount of disclaimer would help if a lawyer actually did give legal advice.) I imagine every lawyer cringes a bit as he types one out. Nobody in their right mind needs to have this explained.

But not everyone is in their right mind, sadly. You hear stories about how every now and then someone didn’t quite get the concept, which can turn into an unpleasant situation. So lawyers hope their disclaimers deter some of those people — and it’s nice to have something in black and white to point out to them.

It hasn’t happened to me, though. Not yet, anyway.

image

Or you could just… you know… try not to get arrested in the first place.

Read them, and not get arrested. Yeah. That might be better.

(Thanks, tho!)

==========

And from a couple days before that:

Yeah… well… not quite.

18 USC 241 & 242 aren’t really about unlawful search and seizure or other stuff dealt with by the exclusionary rule. They’re about police seriously abusing their power. 241 is about conspiring to injure or threaten or intimidate someone, to hinder their civil rights or to retaliate against exercising their rights. 242 is about abusing their power to actually deprive someone of their civil rights.

And the abuse of power has to be really severe. We’re talking about intentionally making up false evidence, intentional false arrests, sexual assaults, and severely excessive force.

What’s being deterred isn’t merely violating the Fourth or Fifth Amendments, but actual criminal conduct. This goes beyond even a civil rights lawsuit. These are not charges that you could bring yourself. They’d have to be filed by a prosecutor.

For a non-federal example of how states deal with it, here’s a story about a Mississippi sheriff who just got indicted the other day for similar conduct.

image

Thanks!

That’s really my purpose here — to dispel all the crazy myths and misinformation that are so prevalent out there, and present the straight facts in a format that’s easy for any high school student or adult to understand.

Not that I want anyone to think they have to accept how things really are. Maybe we ought to do some things differently. I like to think I’m helping people at least make informed arguments one way or the other (and I’ll be honest: I get a real thrill whenever I see people link to the comic in their online debates).

And I love getting messages like this. Totally makes my day. Thanks again!

This is FANTASTIC!

(Sounds like your kid has a great parent, by the way.)

Why Become a Lawyer?

Monday, December 13th, 2010

In today’s environment, where law schools are churning out way more lawyers than the market really wants, plenty of law students and recent grads are wondering if it’s really worth it.

We’re asked this question, in various forms, all the time.  And we see it asked every day on various internet fora.

Our answer is always a resounding YES! …if you’re going into law for the right reasons.  It’s worth it.  Oh yes, it surely is worth it.

Now, if you’re going into law just for a nice paycheck and some prestige, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.  And it’s probably not worth it unless you’re so smart and accomplished that you can be hired by a big firm (and yet not quite bright enough to figure out that, except for a few awesome firms, doing so is essentially trading your life for a living, and putting off any further accomplishments for the next several years).  If you’re not already a superstar at what you’ve been doing with your life thus far, odds are you’re not going to morph into one during law school.

And if you’re doing it because you can’t think of anything else to do, it’s so obvious that you’re doing it for the wrong reasons that it’s a waste of space to even explain it here.

So what are the right reasons?

It’s going to be different for each person, because the right reasons are always personal.  It’s something about you, who you are, what purpose you want your life to have.  But if you’re doing it for the right reasons, you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room.  You don’t have to graduate in the top third of your class at a top-tier school.  All you need to do is bust your ass in school to master the material and learn how to think like a lawyer, then bust your ass once you’ve got that JD and make sure you goddamn well fulfill your purpose.

Again, the reasons are going to be different for each person.  We can’t describe what the right reasons for you might be.  But we can tell you what our reasons were.  Maybe that will help illustrate what we’re talking about.

-=-=-=-=-

Why did we go to law school?

Two words: Frank Johnson.

Most of you have never heard of the guy.  He’s not in the (more…)

Supremes Punt, but Stevens AND Scalia Agree: It’s Time to Clarify whether Feds Can Still Prosecute Old Civil Rights Crimes

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

seale

Way back in May 1964, in the very small town of Meadville, Mississippi, two black teenagers were hitchhiking down the road when James Ford Seale drove up. Seale, a member of the KKK, told them he was a revenooer looking for moonshiners, and told the boys to get in his car. He then drove them off into the forest. A bunch of other Klansmen met up with them.

Seale pointed a sawed-off shotgun at the boys, while the other Klansmen tied them to a tree. Then the boys were whipped to within an inch of their lives with “bean sticks.” The bloodied boys were hauled to a farm nearby, where Seale bound and gagged them with duct tape. The boys were wrapped in a tarp, shoved into a Klansman’s trunk, and driven 100 miles to a secluded riverbank.

While the boys were still alive, they were chained to the engine block of an old Jeep, and to pieces of railroad track. Then the Klansmen dumped the boys in the river, where they drowned. One of the Klansmen later reported that Seale “would have shot them first, but didn’t want to get blood all over the boat.”

The boys were killed because they were black, and because Seale thought they might have been civil-rights workers.

-=-=-=-=-

In June 1964, three civil rights workers went to Longdale, Mississippi, to investigate the burning of a Methodist Church that had been a civil-rights meeting place. A sheriff’s deputy, also a KKK member, recognized their car and locked all three up. The men were held incognito until an ambush could be prepared, and then were told to get out of the county. The deputy followed them to the edge of town, then pulled them over again. A KKK gang showed up, and the three workers were taken to an isolated place to be brutally beaten and shot to death. Their car was burned in a swamp, and their bodies were buried in a dam.

Their disappearance got national attention, and search parties went out.

In July, one of the search parties found the drowned bodies of the two boys Seale had killed in May.

-=-=-=-=-

Seale and several others were investigated for the murders, appearing before a House subcommittee on Un-American Activities in 1966. The Klansmen were asked about a number of kidnappings and murders, but nothing ever came of it. Seale just sat there smoking a cigar, and took the Fifth.

-=-=-=-=-

About forty years went by. The murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee were forgotten.

-=-=-=-=-

Then a Canadian filmmaker saw some old CBC footage of the boys’ bodies being hauled out of the river, with the narration “it was the wrong body. The finding of a negro male was noted and forgotten. The search was not for him. The search was for two white youths and their negro friend.”

The filmmaker, David Ridgen, began working on what would become the documentary “Mississippi Cold Case.” He tracked down the brother of one of the victims, a retired 30-year Army veteran named Thomas Moore, who helped work on the film.

The press had been told that Seale had died in the meantime. But it was discovered that he still lived, and his family had lied to protect him. Ridgen and Moore went to the local U.S. Attorney, who promised to re-open the case.

In early 2007, Seale was indicted on two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy. A fellow Klansman, after being given immunity, told the whole story. Seale was convicted of kidnapping after a jury trial in June 2007.

In August 2007, Seale was given three life sentences.

-=-=-=-=-

Seale appealed to the Fifth Circuit. He argued that the statute of limitations for kidnapping had run out. At the time of the crime, there was no limitations period; but in 1972 it changed to a 5-year period.

That’s a pretty damn good argument. It was a capital kidnapping in 1964, which had no statute of limitations. But then in 1972 we got rid of capital punishment. So it reverted to an ordinary 5-year period.

The government pointed out that in 1994, after Furman v. Georgia, we brought back the death penalty. It was constitutional again. So this was a capital kidnapping again. And he was prosecuted and sentenced after it had been deemed a capital kidnapping again. So there was no statute of limitations.

The Fifth Circuit agreed with Seale, and reversed his conviction in September 2008.

The prosecution requested a rehearing en banc. The full panel vacated the appellate decision, so that it could reconsider the issue. They sort of have to do that.

The full panel then duly reconsidered the issue, and split evenly down the middle in June 2009. The effect was to leave the trial court’s conviction and sentence intact. The original Fifth Circuit decision had been vacated.

So now there was no appellate decision at all! And Seale was left with no more avenues to fight his conviction.

Almost.

Seale took it to the Supreme Court. It wasn’t a petition for certiorari, but the almost-forgotten “certified question.”

-=-=-=-=-

How that works is, the Circuit “certifies” a question that it wants the Supremes to help out with. The Supreme Court is asked to instruct the Circuit court on how it ought to rule in the case.

That’s permitted by Rule 19 of the Supreme Court rules, but it only happens once in a blue moon. The last time it happened was in 1981, when the Second Circuit asked for help with the President’s authority to say claims before the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal had no legal effect in U.S. courts (the Supremes said he can do it). There was another certified question in the 1970s on whether a retired judge gets to vote on whether to hear a case en banc (no). Before that, there was one in 1964 on whether there is a right to a jury in a criminal contempt case (no). And the only other one in living memory was in 1946, where the Supremes said the Circuit can’t review by mandamus a district court’s remand back to the state court after the case had been removed to the district court.

-=-=-=-=-

So here was a historic opportunity for the Supreme Court to not only decide a rare certified question, but also to decide an issue of great importance to a variety of civil-rights-era cases that are still kicking around the federal courts.

And the Court refused.

This isn’t the first time the Roberts Court has punted on issues that it really ought to have decided. And the did it again here.

This is an issue that may seem hyper-technical, but it is critically important! There are a lot of old cases kicking around that were capital cases at the time, then weren’t and now are again. There’s lots of aging Klansmen out there, not to mention the number of cold-case murders being resuscitated by DNA evidence. Whether the feds can even prosecute these cases any more is at stake!

Not to mention the fact that Seale, horrible as his crimes were, seems now to have been denied due process. He can’t appeal any more? Just because the Circuit (singular) split, and the Supreme Court punted? His legal argument is going to go undecided? How is that remotely right?

-=-=-=-=-

The Court doesn’t write opinions from a denial of a certified question. But they sure got a dissenting opinion today, in United States v. James Ford Seale, by the strangest of bedfellows: Justices Stevens and Scalia.

The two, usually diametrically opposed in their jurisprudence and judicial philosophy, agreed wholeheartedly that the Court should have decided this case.

This certificate presents us with a pure question of law that may well determine the outcome of a number of cases of ugly racial violence remaining from the 1960s. The question is what statute of limitations applies to a prosecution under 18 U.S.C. §1201 commenced in 2007 for a kidnapping offense that occurred in 1964.

* * *

In 1964, a violation of §1201 was a capital offense [if] the victim was harmed, and since 1994 a violation of §1201 has been a capital offense when the kidnapping results in the loss of life. But for more than two decades in between, Seale’s crime was not punishable by death.

* * *

The question is narrow, debatable, and important. … I see no benefit, and significant cost, to postponing the question’s resolution. A prompt answer from this Court will expedite the termination of this litigation and determine whether other similar cases may be prosecuted.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Defense to Win All Remaining Supreme Court Cases

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

supreme-court-fountain.png

With only two more decision dates remaining in this Supreme Court term, we’ve got our eyes on four criminal cases yet to be decided. Either next Monday (June 22) or the following Monday (June 29), we should expect to hear from the Supremes.

We’re going to make a prediction right now that all four cases will be decided in favor of the defense. Furthermore, we predict large majorities or unanimous decisions in each case. (Go ahead and laugh, we’ll wait for you.)

The four cases are:

Safford USD v. Redding, No. 08-479. We talked about this one before (see here). A public school had an absurd zero-tolerance policy (surprise, surprise), this time prohibiting prescription Advil. A girl got caught with some. She blamed someone else (surprise, surprise). School authorities confronted the other girl, Redding, who denied being involved. They searched her backpack, and found nothing. They searched her clothes, and found nothing.

Now at this point, a reasonable person might have figured out that the girl who was caught with the actual pills was trying to pull a fast one here. But these were not reasonable people — they were public school officials. So they had Redding — a 13-year-old girl — expose her breasts and vagina. They found no pills. Then they shook out her underwear, and found nothing. Then both the school nurse and another school official physically searched the girl’s body. They found nothing.

Now at this point, a reasonable person would have surely figured out that there was nothing to see here. But these bright bulbs instead stuck the girl in the principal’s office alone for a few hours, didn’t contact her folks, and didn’t bother searching anyone else.

The girl sued, claiming (surprise, surprise) that her Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.

The Supreme Court has now been asked to decide whether public school officials are permitted by the Fourth Amendment to perform a warrantless strip search of a student whom they merely suspect of possessing forbidden contraband.

The school wants the Court to say yes, schools can perform strip searches any time they have reason to suspect that a student has forbidden contraband. They want a rule that doesn’t let judges second-guess the judgment of school officials.

Our prediction is that the Court isn’t going to grant such a bright-line rule. For the reasons we set out in our previous post, we predict that the Court will require a case-by-case analysis. It will be fact-specific, whether the officials have evidence that is sufficiently credible to justify an articulable suspicion that contraband will be found during a strip search. And it will require a balancing, to ensure that the invasiveness of the search is proportionate to the danger of the contraband sought. A strip-search to find an explosive is one thing; but examining a young girl’s private parts to find Advil is another thing entirely.

* * * * *

The next case we’re looking for is Yeager v. United States, No. 08-67.

The issue in Yeager is collateral estoppel after a hung jury. Specifically, a jury acquitted on some counts, and hung on other counts, all sharing a common element. Perhaps the only explanation for the acquittals is that the jury decided that common element in the defendant’s favor. So is the government prevented from re-trying the hung counts, by collateral estoppel?

Yeager was an executive with Enron’s telecom unit, charged with 176 white-collar crimes. After a three-month-long trial, the jury acquitted him on the counts of conspiracy, securities fraud and wire fraud. But the jury hung on the counts of insider trading and money laundering.

The Fifth Circuit said that one explanation for the acquittals is that the jury found that Yeager had no inside information. That was also an element of the insider trading count. But the Circuit said it was impossible to determine “with any certainty what the jury” actually must have decided. So that meant there could be no collateral estoppel precluding a new trial.

At oral argument, Justice Souter honed in on the real issue here, which is a conflict between two underlying principles of our current jurisprudence. On the one hand, once a jury has determined a fact, the government doesn’t get a second chance to prove it. On the other hand, the government is permitted a full opportunity to convict, so it is allowed to re-try counts where a jury hung. Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy and Breyer explored the conflicting principles in greater depth. Although the government’s attorney was more deft at handling the philosophical argument, and Yeager’s attorney seemed to be stuck in a surface argument, it seemed by the end that the Court was siding with Yeager.

What seems to have killed the government’s position here was its assertion that acquittals should not affect retrials if they are not “rational” — meaning they are inconsistent with the jury’s remaining outcomes — and that a hung count is an outcome that can be used to determine whether the actual verdicts were rational. That not only conflicts with precedent that permits inconsistent verdicts, but also defies common sense by treating the absence of a decision as an affirmative determination.

This one’s a tossup, but we’re going to predict a ruling in favor of Yeager here.

* * * * *

The third case to watch for is District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne, No. 08-6.

Osborne was convicted 14 years ago for kidnapping and sexual assault. The victim was brutally assaulted and raped in a remote area in Alaska. Osborne was alleged to have used a blue condom. A blue condom was found at the scene, containing semen. Osborne now wants to get discovery of the semen, and have DNA testing done at his own expense, in the hopes that it will demonstrate his innocence. The State of Alaska refused.

Osborne brought a 42 U.S.C. §1983 civil rights suit, arguing that Alaska’s refusal violated his Due Process rights. The district court dismissed the suit, saying he should have brought a Habeas claim instead.

The Ninth Circuit issued two decisions. The first was that a §1983 suit is fine here, because the outcome would not necessarily undermine the state-court conviction. The DNA evidence could potentially prove his guilt, or be inconclusive. It would only require Habeas if the evidence would have to demonstrate innocence. And he could still bring a Habeas later if the §1983 action fails.

In its second decision, the Ninth Circuit forced the Supreme Court’s hand. The Supremes have long taken pains to avoid deciding whether a convict can overturn his conviction based only on a claim of innocence, rather than on pointing out defects in the way the trial was conducted. But the Ninth assumed that this is permissible.

Then, based on that assumption, the Ninth said that in circumstances like that — in fact, only in circumstances like that — where a convict could later use the evidence in a freestanding innocence claim, then Brady gives a post-conviction right to access potentially favorable evidence.

The Supreme Court is now deciding both issues: whether the §1983 suit is appropriate for accessing DNA evidence post-conviction, and whether Due Process requires such access if it could establish innocence.

At oral argument, Justice Souter barely let the Alaska A.G. get a word out before launching a lengthy debate over whether Osborne merely sought evidence that might or might not allow him to establish a claim later, or whether he sought evidence that he affirmatively believes will be the basis of a claim of innocence. By the end, both Scalia and Ginsburg had gotten involved, and the Chief Justice was wondering whether the State even had the evidence any more. Breyer got everyone back on track, pointing out that §1983 was appropriate when you didn’t know what the evidence was yet, and Habeas is appropriate when you do know. And here, nobody knows what the DNA evidence is, yet. So how come the State doesn’t have a constitutional obligation to give him the DNA?

The AG gave a terrible response, saying that Osborne simply followed the wrong procedure. Half the bench jumped in to interrupt him, dumbfounded at the assertion, given that Alaska doesn’t have a statutory procedure in the first place. The one statute out there (as Scalia pointed out) first requires an assertion that the evidence establishes innocence, which is the one thing nobody can say yet, because it hasn’t been tested yet. Souter and Scalia tag-teamed the AG on that mercilessly. At one point, Scalia had the audience laughing at the AG. For the rest of the oral argument, the Justices would refer to the fact that they “must have missed” this procedure being mentioned in any of the briefs.

By the end of the AG’s time, nobody had even gotten to the juicy issues yet. Breyer tried to give the AG a chance to talk about it, but the AG just went back to his procedural claim that had used up his time already. This only frustrated the Justices.

The U.S., as amicus to Alaska, started off better, getting to the heart of the issue — the issue the Supreme Court has so long avoided — arguing that prisoners do not have the right to challenge their conviction based on a freestanding claim of actual innocence. But Souter suggested that the right may be found, “not in procedural, but in substantive Due Process,” and asked a hypothetical about letting counsel speak to another prisoner who claims to have exonerating evidence. The Deputy S.G. floundered, and got laughed at as well. They never even got to the constitutional issue (as Souter repeatedly pointed out), and got mired in whether the government even has an interest here in the first place. And then time was up.

Osborne’s lawyer did much better. He deflected the Court’s concerns that at trial the defense had chosen not to test the DNA, and thus must have believed it would show guilt, by pointing out that both sides chose not to test it, because the tests available would have destroyed all of the evidence, precluding later testing.

The Justices across the board expressed concern that they were being asked to create a new constitutional right here. Shouldn’t a prisoner have to make a claim, under penalty of perjury, that he is actually innocent first? Shouldn’t there be a requirement of due diligence, so that claims aren’t made years and years after they could have been brought? Osborne’s attorney admitted that those are fine ideas, and wouldn’t be an obstacle here.

Then Scalia tipped his hand a little. Osborne’s lawyer observed that this is the first case where a prosecutor conceded that DNA would be “absolutely slam-dunk dispositive of innocence,” but doesn’t let the prisoner access it. Scalia thought out loud, “you know, it is very strange. Why did they do that, I wonder?” “Well, it’s very…” Scalia interrupted, “there was a lot of other evidence in the case, wasn’t there?” “Well, that’s…” Scalia cut in, “I don’t know what they thought they were doing.”

Scalia, for one, is not likely to side with the DA’s office here.

Souter came back to his conclusion that this is a substantive Due Process issue, which would require that the prisoner first claim that he is actually innocent. This conflicted with the sworn testimony before the Parole Board admitting guilt. But Breyer pointed out that prisoners often wisely admit guilt before such Boards, because they’re not getting out otherwise. (As defense lawyers like to say, forget guilt or innocence, “out is out.”) So relying on Parole Board admissions would be an arbitrary basis for withholding DNA evidence. So “suppose we said that the rule is non-arbitrary, with illustrations. Send it back to the states. And of course, when they apply their own statutes, by and large they’re not being arbitrary.” Osborne’s counsel agreed, “I think that’s a very sound approach to this.” Breyer responded, “well, it does help you win.”

I don’t think Breyer or Souter are siding with Alaska here, either.

The Chief Justice wondered if the right would be depend on the accuracy of the testing available. No, said Osborne’s lawyer, it has nothing to do with it — the right would just prohibit the state from arbitrarily preventing access to evidence. So long as there’s a reasonable probability that the test will demonstrate evidence, then that should be enough.

On rebuttal, the AAG got maybe three words in edgewise.

So just going from the oral argument, we’re going to predict a loss for Alaska.

Now whether that means a whole new constitutional right or not, well we’re not so sure. This only affects a handful of defendants whose convictions came before the Federal Innocence Protection Act in the mid-1990s.

The trick, though, will be whether the Court can continue to avoid the elephant in the room, the issue of whether one can assert a freestanding claim of innocence. The Ninth Circuit made it a prerequisite, and both the liberal and conservative Justices seemed to put a lot of weight on whether the prisoner first asserted innocence.

We predict that the Court is going to go all the way here. And as long as we’re going out on a limb, we’ll also predict a unanimous decision.

* * * * *

The final criminal case yet to be decided is also the oldest: Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, No. 07-591.

The issue is straightforward: Is a lab report, by itself, a form of testimony for Confrontation Clause purposes, per Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004)?

Crawford says you can’t introduce earlier statements of a government witness, if they hadn’t been subject to cross-examination.

Well, a police lab report wasn’t subject to cross-examination when it was created. But they are often admitted into evidence without live testimony from the chemist or forensic expert who made the report — they’re self-authenticating. If lab reports are testimonial, then Crawford would preclude this practice. If they are not testimonial, but merely a record, then they could continue to be admitted without live testimony.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court looked at this conundrum a couple times, and decided that drug analysis reports were simply records of “primary fact, with no judgment or discretion,” by the chemist who prepared them. So they weren’t testimonial, and there was no Confrontation Clause problem.

Melendez-Diaz was the defendant in the second such case, which affirmed the first one.

It’s a sure bet that Scalia is going to side with the defendant here. He has long been a champion of the Confrontation Clause, and his contributions at oral argument were true to form.

The Massachusetts AG was frankly an embarrassment, making inaccurate assertions (and being corrected by the Court), resting heavily on the lame argument that nobody’s made this particular claim before, and claiming that requiring chemists to testify would be an “undue burden,” even though it’s no such burden to California or New York or any other state where it’s routinely done at trial. Kennedy even coached the AG with arguments that she ought to have been making, and scolded her when she still didn’t make them.

Justices Kennedy, Scalia and Stevens had little patience for the amicus Assistant S.G., whose argument was that machine-generated reports aren’t testimonial. There’s a difference between an automated record and a computerized document created for the purpose of proving an element of a crime at trial. And they’re different from computerized documents reflecting the observations and conclusions of a human being.

Based on how the oral argument went, we’re going to predict yet another win for the defendant.