Supreme Court issues Five Significant Decisions for Public Defenders
The U.S. Supreme Court issued five decisions through mid-June of interest to public defenders.
Ginsburg, Thomas invite double jeopardy challenge
Perhaps the most important case so far in June is Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, but not for the decision itself. The importance is in a concurrence, which expressly invites defense counsel to bring to the Court a case to reexamine whether double jeopardy prohibits prosecutions for the same criminal conduct in both state and federal court.
In Sanchez Valle, decided June 9, the Court held that the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits successive prosecutions by Puerto Rico and the United States for the same criminal conduct. But that ruling resulted from Puerto Rico’s history.
“To determine whether two prosecuting authorities are different sovereigns for double jeopardy purposes, this Court asks a narrow, historically focused question,” the Court said. The issue does not turn on whether the two jurisdictions have autonomous sovereignty or powers to enact criminal laws, but “whether the prosecutorial powers of the two jurisdictions have independent origins — or said conversely, whether those powers derive from the same ‘ultimate source.’”
Unlike States, whose powers to enact and prosecute criminal laws predated the federal government and whose powers are not derived from the federal government, Puerto Rico’s powers to enact and prosecute criminal laws are derived from the U.S. Congress.
Puerto Rico has a similar status as municipalities within States, because municipalities derive their power to enact criminal ordinances from States. And, because municipalities receive their power from States, municipalities and States cannot bring successive prosecutions for the same conduct.
While the holding in Sanchez Valle will affect only people in Puerto Rico, an unusual coalition of justices expressly invited a double jeopardy challenge to whether successive prosecutions can occur in state and federal court. Justices Ginsburg and Thomas wrote a concurring opinion to “flag” this “larger question.”
“The double jeopardy proscription is intended to shield individuals from the harassment of multiple prosecutions for the same misconduct,” they said. Current separate sovereigns doctrine — which permits States and the federal government to bring separate prosecutions for the same conduct – “hardly serves that objective,” they said.
They suggested it was “inconsistent” with the Double Jeopardy Clause “to try or punish a person twice for the same offense.”
“The matter warrants attention in a future case in which a defendant faces successive prosecutions” by a State and the federal government, they concluded.
Prosecutor turned judge
In Williams v. Pennsylvania, decided June 9, the Court held that due process required that a state supreme court justice be disqualified from judging a postconviction case where the judge had previously been the prosecutor who authorized seeking the death penalty in the underlying criminal case.
When Ronald Castille was district attorney of Philadelphia, he authorized seeking the death penalty against Terrance Williams. Williams was ultimately sentenced to death.
Castille later became Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Williams pursued several rounds of postconviction relief. A state judge granted relief on grounds that the trial prosecutor – not Castille – had failed to disclose exculpatory Brady evidence, and engaged in other prosecutorial misconduct. The State appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Williams filed a motion to recuse Justice Castille, which was denied.
The state Supreme Court ultimately reversed the grant of postconviction relief. Castille joined the majority opinion.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-3 opinion, held that Castille should have been disqualified.
“The due process guarantee that ‘no man can be a judge in his own case’ would have little substance if it did not disqualify a former prosecutor from sitting in judgment of a prosecution in which he or she had made a critical decision,” the Court said.
The test for disqualification is objective, “which avoids having to determine whether actual bias is present,” the Court said. The test is “not whether a judge harbors an actual, subjective bias, but instead whether, as an objective matter, the average judge in his position is likely to be neutral, or whether there is an unconstitutional potential for bias.”
The Court found that it would be “difficult” for Castille not to view the postconviction court’s grant of relief as a criticism of his former office, and his own leadership. This was not cured by the passage of time, or that other prosecutors actually prosecuted the case, the Court said.
The Court concluded that Castille’s failure to recuse was structural error – not subject to harmless error – even if Castille did not cast the deciding vote in the case. It is impossible to determine how one justice’s views may have influenced his colleagues, the Court said.
The Court remanded the case back to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for further proceedings. Although the Court acknowledged that other justices could still be influenced by Castille’s views, “[a]n inability to guarantee complete relief for a constitutional violation … does not justify withholding a remedy altogether.”
No “special exception” to administrative exhaustion
In Ross v. Blake, decided June 6, the Court unanimously held that the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) mandates that prisoners exhaust “available” administrative remedies before bringing a lawsuit to challenge prison conditions.
The Court rejected the Second and Fourth Circuits’ approach, which allowed lawsuits to proceed without exhaustion of administrative remedies when certain “special circumstances” occurred. The Fourth Circuit found that a “special circumstance” occurred here because the prisoner reasonably, but mistakenly, believed he had exhausted his administrative remedies.
The PLRA, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1997e(a), states that no lawsuit can by brought with respect to prison conditions “until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.”
The statutory text refutes the “special circumstance” approach, the Court ruled. The “mandatory language means a court may not excuse a failure to exhaust, even to take such circumstances into account.”
But the Court noted that the PLRA contains “one significant qualifier: the remedies must indeed by ‘available’ to the prisoner.” A prisoner “need not exhaust unavailable ones.”
Administrative remedies may be unavailable when they operate as a “dead end,” such as when prison officials are “unable or consistently unwilling to provide any relief,” the Court said. Such remedies may also be unavailable when the procedures are so confusing or opaque that no reasonable prisoner could use them, or when prison officials thwart prisoners from pursing administrative remedies through “machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation.”
The Court remanded the case to determine whether the prisoner had an “available” administrative remedy which he failed to exhaust.
Uncounseled tribal convictions can be used as predicate offenses
In United States v. Bryant, decided June 13, the Court unanimously held that prior uncounseled tribal court convictions can be used as predicate offenses to prosecute domestic violence cases involving Native American defendants in federal court, provided that the right-to-counsel provisions of the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) were followed in the prior cases.
To deal with the problem of domestic violence in Native American communities, Congress enacted 18 U.S.C. Sec. 117(a), which makes it a federal crime for a person to commit domestic assault if the person has, as relevant here, at least two prior final convictions for domestic violence in “Indian tribal court proceedings.”
Michael Bryant had multiple prior tribal court convictions for domestic violence, all of which had sentences of less than one year. He contended that these prior convictions could not count as predicates under Sec. 117(a) because they were entered without counsel, and using them would violate his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
But the Supreme Court disagreed. As separate sovereigns pre-existing the U.S. Constitution, Native American tribes and their tribal courts are not bound by the Sixth Amendment. Congress enacted ICRA to provide procedural safeguards similar, but not identical, to those in the Bill of Rights.
ICRA’s right-to-counsel is not co-extensive with the Sixth Amendment right, the Court said. ICRA does not provide a right to appointed counsel for offenses which carry less than one year imprisonment.
Because Bryant’s prior convictions complied with ICRA, they were valid when entered and can be used as predicate offenses under Sec. 117(a), the Court concluded.
Civil juries can be recalled in limited circumstances
Finally, in Dietz v. Bouldin, decided June 9, the Court ruled that federal judges can, in limited circumstances, recall a jury after it has been dismissed in order to correct a legal mistake in the verdict. The Court expressly noted, however, that it was not deciding whether judges can do this in criminal cases.
Dietz involved a civil suit over damages from a car accident. The parties had stipulated to minimum damages of about $10,000, meaning any verdict had to be at least that amount.
The jury returned a verdict awarding no damages. The judge dismissed the jury, but before most jurors left the courthouse, realized the legal error in the verdict. The judge recalled the jurors to deliberate further. The jury then awarded $15,000.
The issue at the Supreme Court was whether the judge had authority to recall the jury, or whether the only remedy was to order a new trial.
In a 6-2 opinion, the Court ruled that the judge could recall jurors. But “[b]ecause the potential of tainting jurors and the jury process after discharge is extraordinarily high, however, this power is limited in duration and scope, and must be exercised carefully to avoid any potential prejudice,” the Court said.
In determining whether a jury can be recalled, courts should consider the length of delay between discharge and recall; whether jurors have spoken to anyone after discharge or accessed information about the case from external sources, including the internet; and courtroom or public reaction to the verdict.
“Shock, gasps, crying, cheers, and yelling are common reactions to a jury verdict,” the Court noted. “In such a case, there is a high risk that emotional reactions will cause jurors to begin to reconsider their decision.”
The Court cautioned that its opinion was limited to civil cases. “Given additional concerns in criminal cases, such as attachment of the double jeopardy bar, we do not address here whether it would be appropriate to recall a jury after discharge in a criminal case.”