High court: Delayed confessions can be inadmissible

April 6, 2009

supremesA confession by a defendant who had been in police custody for more than six hours without being presented to a magistrate is inadmissible, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

In the 5-4 opinion in Corley v. U.S., the Supreme Court found that 18 U.S.C. §3501 – which holds that admissions “shall be admissible if it is voluntarily given” within six hours of an arrest – did not supplant the McNabb-Mallory rule, which requires police to take a defendant “without unnecessary delay” before a magistrate judge.

“Today presentment is the point at which the judge is required to take several key steps to foreclose government overreaching: informing the defendant of the charges against him, his right to remain silent, his right to counsel, the availability of bail, and any right to a preliminary hearing; giving the defendant a chance to consult with counsel; and deciding between detention or release,” wrote Justice David Souter for the majority. “In a world without McNabb-Mallory, federal agents would be free to question suspects for extended periods before bringing them out in the open, and we have always known what custodial secrecy leads to.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the majority, leaving the Court’s conservative bloc to file a dissent. More here on Corley from Lawyers USA.

He Court also ruled in U.S. v. Navajo Nation that The Navajo Nation has no claim for damages under the Indian TuckerAct) for an asserted breach of fiduciary duty by the Secretary of the Interior in connection with his failure promptly to approve a royalty rate increase under a coal lease the Tribe executed in 1964.


Court rules in plain-error forfeiture case

March 25, 2009

usscpoolToday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Puckett v. U.S. that the plain-error test must be used to determine whether a defendant’s claim that the government breached a plea agreement is forfeited. The case involved a defendant who agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence, but committed another crime before sentencing, causing the prosecutors to seek – and the judge to impose – a harsher sentence. On appeal, the defendant raised for the first time the claim that the government breached the plea agreement. The appellate court applying the plain-error standard, found that the defendant did not show we was prejudiced by the error.

Writing for the 7-2 majority affirming the decision, Justice Antonin Scalia said requiring defendants to raise such an issue at the trial level is important to prevent defendants from “gaming” the system by waiting to see what sentence he gets and “then seeking a second bite at the apple by raising the claim” on appeal. Justices David Souter and John Paul Stevens dissented.

The opinion is available here.

Monday status conference: Budget making and Supreme speculation

March 16, 2009

whitehousePresident Obama is focusing on the budget today, and using familiar avenues to try to sell it (here’s a hint – check you inboxes!). But it won’t be an easy road, as GOP lawmakers have already ripped the president’s spending plan, vowing to offer their own. The Supreme Court is in recess until Friday, when the justices conference.


souter3The most private justice: Not even those closest to Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who some claim may retire from the bench soon, know exactly what his retirement plans are. (AP)

Birthday girl: Meanwhile, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose recent comments that there will “soon” be a vacancy on the Court stirred even more speculation, turned 76 on Sunday. Read more here on Ginsburg’s talk in Boston here from Lawyers USA.

Bias claim boom: The economy is bad, but at least one area of law is booming: employment attorneys are busier than ever. Employment discrimination charges soared to an unprecedented level last year – up 15 percent from the previous year, according to newly-released numbers. (Lawyers USA)

Safe food vow: President Obama promised to reorganize the nation’s fractured food-safety system, calling inadequate inspections “a hazard to the public health.” (NYT)

Ginsburg hints at soon-to-come Supreme Court vacancy

March 13, 2009

rbginsburgJustice Ruth Bader Ginsburg hinted today that a vacancy could soon come up on the U.S. Supreme Court. But she didn’t say just who might be leaving.

In recent months, speculation has swirled over the possibility of Supreme Court retirements, fueled by the election of President Barack Obama and issues with several liberal-leaning Justices (Justice John Paul Stevens is 89, Ginsburg herself is a two-time cancer survivor, and Justice David Souter is said to be totally over the whole Washington thing).

Today Ginsburg threw more fuel on the rumor fire during an event at New England Law in Boston, according to the AP. Noting that the justices only take official pictures together when a new member is added, Ginsburg said: “We haven’t had any of those for some time, but surely we will soon.”

The 76-year-old justice didn’t elaborate, nor did she take questions from reporters at the event. But she did speak to students about a host of things, from words of wisdom that retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a fellow cancer survivor, gave her, to the fact that Souter took her to the opera when her husband was ailing. “He never goes out, so people were amazed to see him,” Ginsberg said, according to The Boston Globe.

And she used the opportunity to show she is indeed a funny justice. “If I could have asked God to give me any talent in the world, I would never have been a lawyer, I’d be a great diva,” she said.

Supremes take a pass on Obama challenge

December 8, 2008

supremesThis morning the U.S. Supreme Court without comment declined to take up a case challenging the citizenship of President-elect Barack Obama.

The court declined to take up a host of cases including Donofrio v. Wells, a case that had been the subject of much chatter on political blogs in recent days after Justice David Souter denied injunctive action in the obama6case, and Justice Clarence Thomas placed the case on the list of items considered by the Court at its conference Friday. Most news organizations noted that this case, like most before the Court, had little chance of being granted cert by the high court.

The case is one of several lawsuits launched challenging Obama’s citizenship – most claim that since Obama’s father was born in Kenya and was therefore a British subject, Obama was not a “natural born” citizen. More here from The Washington Post.

Cert denied, but Stevens and Breyer still speak out on capital victim videos

November 11, 2008

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up cases considering the admissibility of video victim impact statements during the penalty stage of capital murder trials — and three justices were not happy about it.

The videos – which can be seen here on the Court’s website – featured images of the murder victims, voiceovers from loved ones, music and other images (like galloping horses in the case of a victim who was an avid horseback rider). The defendants challenged the admission of the videos, and ultimately petitioned the Court to decide whether they were unduly prejudicial.

It takes four justices to grant certiorari in a case, and the Court apparently fell one justice short.  Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer wanted to take up the case.

stevens3Stevens, as he has several times this term, issued a statement on the cert denial, expressing in no uncertain terms his concerns about such statements.

“Victim impact evidence is powerful in any form,” Stevens wrote. “But in each of these cases the evidence was especially prejudicial. Although the video shown to each jury was emotionally evocative, it was not probative of the culpability or character of the offender or the circumstances of the offense. Nor what the evidence particularly probative of the impact of the crimes on the victims’ family members.”

Stevens found the form of the statements particularly troubling. “As these cases demonstrate, when victim impact evidence is enhanced with music, photographs, or video footage, the risk of unfair prejudice quickly becomes overwhelming.”


Breyer, in a separate statement, echoed Stevens’ concerns. “[T]he film’s emotional and artistic attributes themselves create the legal problem,” Breyer wrote. “They render the film’s purely emotional impact strong, perhaps unusually so.”

Breyer added: “The due process problem of disproportionately powerful emotion is a serious one” in the videos.

McCain’s switch on Souter; Obama: Thomas isn’t too bright

August 18, 2008

The candidates for president have been asked repeatedly which Supreme Court justices they admire. This weekend, at a forum hosted by Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., they were asked which justices they would not have nominated.

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, named the four jurists of the Court’s liberal bloc: Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and David Souter – even though McCain voted ‘yea’ along with 89 of his Senate colleagues to confirm Souter, a nominee of President George H.W. Bush, in 1990.

Democratic presumptive nominee Sen. Barack Obama, unsurprisingly, picked several of the Court’s conservative jurists, although the reason he gave for one was a bit surprising.

Naming Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and Justice Antonin Scalia, Obama said he disagreed with their views, but respected their intellect. When it came to Justice Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, Obama said he didn’t think the justice was the sharpest tack in the box.

“I don’t think that he was a strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation, setting aside the fact that I profoundly disagree with his interpretations of a lot of the Constitution,” Obama said of Thomas.

Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito managed not the get the hook from either candidate.