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January 19, 2010

Lots of notable little(?) mid-winter SCOTUS criminal justice action

Though everyone continues to await big rulings from the Supreme Court on a variety of topics, the Justices today continued their recent trend of issuing a lot of notable little criminal justice rulings.  Drawn from a couple of new posts at SCOTUSblog, here are today's highlights:

The Supreme Court ruled for the first time on Tuesday that the process of selecting a jury to try a criminal case must generally be open to the public, under the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantee of a public trial.  While the Court had ruled in 1984 that the questioning of potential jurors must be open under the First Amendment, when the public or press seeks access, it had not extended that right to the Sixth Amendment when the accused seeks openness of that stage of the proceedings....

The ruling, issued without formal briefing an oral argument, was decided by a 7-2 vote in Presley v. Georgia (09-5270) [available here]. The majority opinion was not signed.  Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, dissented....

The Court, in a second summary ruling on Tuesday, engaged in a spirited debate — with a 5-4 result — over when the Court should wipe out a lower court’s ruling and order it to reconsider.  The case involved a Georgia murder case — a case in which, the Court majority said, there was a trial that “looked typical,” but “there were unusual events going on behind the scenes.”  The Court cited private contacts between the jurors and the trial judge, and noted that, during the trial,. “some members of the jury gave the trial judge chocolate shaped as male genitalia and the bailiff chocolate shaped as female breasts.”  None of this, the Court said, had been reported by the judge to defense lawyers representing Marcus Wellons on the trial for a 1989 murder.

The decision ordered the Eleventh Circuit Court to reconsider the case, applying the Court’s decision last year in Cone v. Bell (a decision that federal habeas review of a criminal conviction is not barred when a state court had declined to review the merits of a case on the ground that it had done so previously).

The majority opinion was unsigned. It presumably was supported by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor and John Paul Stevens.  There were two dissenting opinions: by Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, and by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.  The case is Wellons v. Hall (09-5731) [available here].

The Court ruled that it had no jurisdiction, at this point, to review a lower federal court’s order that would require the state of California to release upwards of 40,000 inmates from its state prisons to ease overcrowding that the lower court blamed for inadequate medical care in the 33 prisons.  The Court noted, in a brief order, that a new order has been issued in the case, “but that order is not the subject” of the present challenge.  It also took note of the fact that the latest lower court order has been blocked pending “review by this Court” — an indication that the Court expects the state to file a fresh new appeal to challenge the order now in effect, issued earlier this month. Lawyers for state officials have said they would promptly file a new appeal.  (The cases are Schwarzenegger v. Plata, 09-416, and California Republican Legislators v. Plata, 09-553)....

The Court ordered the Third Circuit Court to reconsider reinstating the death penalty for Mumia Abu-Jamal in a celebrated case of the murder of a Philadelphia police officer nearly three decades ago.  The appeal of Pennsylvania state officials in Beard v. Abu-Jamal (08-652) was returned to the Circuit Court for it to apply last week’s decision in Smith v. Spisak  08-724), clarifying the constitutional rules involving the use of verdict forms in death penalty cases and how those forms advise the jury about considering mitigating evidence.

It is not obvious that any of this SCOTUS action will have any obvious impact much beyond the cases adjudicated.  But perhaps readers can see bigger consequences or read major tea leaves from these seemingly little rulings.

January 19, 2010 at 12:31 PM | Permalink

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There was also, on page 3 of the order list, a GVR for reconsideration in light of Booker. How does that happen, in 2010?

Posted by: Sam | Jan 19, 2010 12:55:25 PM

Sam: That opinion is found here: http://pacer.ca4.uscourts.gov/opinion.pdf/014028.U.pdf

It appears that the Eleventh Circuit affirmed where a district court looked to "other evidence" to establish the amount of drugs the defendant had, including "the testimony of the one reliable witness, examining the grand jury testimony of two witnesses, and the debriefing statements of two witnesses." The defendant also claimed that the district court relied on the presentence reports for other witnesses in making his judgment.

Posted by: GMG | Jan 19, 2010 2:52:24 PM

Er, replace "Eleventh Circuit" with "Fourth Circuit."

Posted by: GMG | Jan 19, 2010 2:53:05 PM

GMG,

The opinion you link to is from CA4 and way too old to be at issue now (at least I hope so) since it issued in 2001.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jan 19, 2010 3:07:14 PM

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TROY DAVIS & MUMIA ABU-JAMAL PLEASE REMEMBER ~ JESUS CHRIST HIMSELF ALSO HAD 2 DEAL WITH ......

OUR U.S.CONGRESS HAS DOCUMENTED OUR UNJUST AMERICAN JUDICIAL SYSTEM AND WE STILL HAVE CERTAIN AMERICANS EVEN TODAY WANTING TO RUN THE RISK OF EXECUTING EVEN POSSIBLE INNOCENT CITIZENS RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE REST OF US IN THE NAME OF THEIR SO CALLED JUSTICE.

GOD DOES NOT HAVE MANDATE WITH U.S. SUPREME COURT 2 CONTINUE ALLOWING POSSIBLE WRONGFUL EXECUTIONS TO BE INFLICTED ON OUR AMERICAN POOR !!!

**TROY DAVIS & MUMIA ABU ~JAMAL ~ ARE HAVING PRAYERS FOR JUSTICE SAID FOR THEM WORLD~WIDE ..WE CAN ALL ONLY HOPE AND PRAY THAT EVERYONE IN OUR U.S.CONGRESS THAT KNOWS AND UNDERSTANDS HOW UNJUST OUR U.S JUDICIAL SYSTEM CAN BE WITH OUR POORER AMERICANS,BECOMES ACTIVE IN MAKING SURE THAT TROY DAVIS OF GEORGIA AND MUMIA ABU~JAMAL OF PENNSYLVANIA RECEIVE FAIR AND JUST TRIALS BEFORE ANY POSSIBLE WRONGFUL EXECUTIONS TAKE PLACE.
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THE NATIONAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE COMMISSION ACT OF 2009

The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 that I introduced in the Senate on March 26, 2009 will create a blue-ribbon commission to look at every aspect of our criminal justice system with an eye toward reshaping the process from top to bottom.

I believe that it is time to bring together the best minds in America to confer, report, and make concrete recommendations about how we can reform the process. This legislation has already garnered wide bipartisan support in Congress and from interest groups representing a range of backgrounds and political viewpoints.

Why We Urgently Need this Legislation: With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses 25% of the world's reported prisoners. Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980. Four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals. Approximately 1 million gang members reside in the U.S., many of them foreign-based; and Mexican cartels operate in 230+ communities across the country.

Post-incarceration re-entry programs are haphazard and often nonexistent, undermining public safety and making it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to become full, contributing members of society. America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation's prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous.

We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives. We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration. MATERIALS & RESOURCES Read the legislation, S. 714 Fact sheet on the legislation Senator Webb's floor speech introducing the legislation PARADE Magazine cover story, "What's Wrong with our Prisons?" Senator Jim Webb,

Sunday March 29, 2009 The scope of the problem: relevant charts and graphs List of Support for the National Criminal Justice Commission Act Of 2009 Opening Statement of Sen. Webb at Judiciary Subcommittee Hearing on National Criminal Justice Commission Act, June 11, 2009 Watch Senator Webb's Floor Speech Introducing the Legislation, March 26, 2009 Senator Webb's article on the Huffington Post, "Why We Must Reform Our Criminal Justice System" MATERIALS FROM PAST HEARINGS, SYMPOSIUMS Joint Economic Committee Hearing, conducted by Senator Webb, "Mass Incarceration in the United States: At What Cost?" October 2007 Joint Economic Committee Hearing, conducted by Senator Webb, "Illegal Drugs: Economic Impact, Societal Costs, and Policy Responses,"

June 2008 George Mason University Symposium, hosted by Senator Webb and the GMU Administration of Justice Department, "Drugs in America: Trafficking, Policy and Sentencing," October 2008 Senator Webb's Keynote Address to the Brookings Institution's Policy Roundtable on the Challenges to Prisoner Re-entry, December 2008 NEWS ARTICLES & COMMENTARY Virginian Pilot editorial: "Time to reconsider U.S. justice system," April 6, 2009 Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star: "Behind-bars review," April 5, 2009 The Washington Post Writers Group: "Webb Leads the Charge for Much-Needed Drug, Prison Reform," April 5, 2009 Economist: "A Nation of Jailbirds," April 2, 2009 Daily Press: "Go After the Real Problem," March 31, 2009 New York Times: "Reviewing Criminal Justice," March 30, 2009 Lynchburg News & Advance: "Webb Takes on Politics' Third Rail: Prison Reform," March 29, 2009 Salon.com: "Jim Webb's courage v. the "pragmatism" excuse for politicians," March 28, 2009 The Virginian Pilot Editorial:

"Time to Rethink Goals of Prison," January 5, 2009 Roanoke Times Editorial: "The Criminal Justice System Needs Help," January 5, 2009 Las Vegas Sun Editorial: "Voice for Broken Prisons," January 3, 2009 U.S. News & World Report: "James Webb Shows Leadership Regarding Prison Reform," January 2, 2009 New York Times Editorial: "Sen. Webb's Call for Prison Reform," January 1, 2009 Washington Post: "Webb Sets His Sights On Prison Reform," December 29, 2008 Daily Press: "Alternative to Jail for Addicts Gains New Supporter," December 28, 2008 The Virginian Pilot: "Senator Elevates Debate on Failed Drug, Prison Policies," October 18, 2008 The Roanoke Times Editorial: "A Sensible Call for Sentencing Reform," October 13, 2008 Washington Post Op-Ed: "Two Separate Societies: One in Prison, One Not," April 15, 2008

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LAWYERS FOR POOR AMERICANS HAS COMPLETE FAITH THAT SUPREME COURT JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS IS THE RIGHT MAN IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME FOR JUSTICE TO PREVAIL FOR ALL AMERICANS !

Posted by: LAWYERS FOR POOR AMERICANS | Feb 24, 2010 6:55:10 PM

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