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Another Ugly Nawlins Case

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The Big Easy is really good at partying, but apparently not so good at disclosing exculpatory information to the defendant, as required by Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83 (1963). Last term, we had Connick v. Thompson, a civil case about failure to disclose a crime lab report.  Today we have Smith v. Cain, about failure to disclose prior inconsistent statements by the only witness who identified the defendant at trial.

This is about as pure a Brady claim as they come.  As CJ Roberts explains, the jury might have believed the witness's trial statements rather than the prior statements, but "might" is not the test.

The State and the dissent advance various reasons why the jury might have discounted Boatner's undisclosed statements. They stress, for example, that Boatner made other remarks on the night of the murder indicating that he could identify the first gunman to enter the house, but not the others. That merely leaves us to speculate about which of Boatner's contradictory declarations the jury would have believed. The State also contends that Boatner's statements made five days after the crime can be explained by fear of retaliation. Smith responds that the record contains no evidence of any such fear. Again, the State's argument offers a reason that the jury could have disbelieved Boatner's undisclosed statements, but gives us no confidence that it would have done so.
This case is a straightforward application of settled law to particular facts that makes little new law.  Why did the Supreme Court take it up?  Wouldn't Smith have been granted relief on federal habeas from the state court's unreasonable rejection of his claim?  Isn't that why Congress adopted the compromise standard of 28 U.S.C. ยง2254(d), rather than getting rid of federal habeas for state prisoners altogether?

Or does the Supreme Court lack confidence that the Fifth Circuit will grant habeas relief where the 2254(d) standard requires it (i.e., clearly wrong state court decisions), just as it lacks confidence that the circuits divisible by 3 will observe that standard and refrain from second-guessing state courts on close questions, as Congress has required?

The politics of federal judicial appointments, unfortunately, results in the states that need the most federal scrutiny receiving the least and vice versa.  The voters who choose the governor who appoints the state judges, or who elect the state judges directly, also choose the senators who have large influence over the appointments of the federal district and circuit judges in their states.  Less home-state-senator influence over the circuit appointments, at least, would help balance things out.  The political realities being what they are, though, I am not hopeful that can be done.

2 Comments

"Why did the Supreme Court take it up?" I suspect that there are a few reasons--first, they've been pounding the liberal judges for blowing off AEDPA--this case lets federal judges know that rubberstamping state court decisions is not ok. Second, I don't think that SCOTUS thinks that the Fifth is untrustworthy--rather, I'd like to think that the Supreme Court took this case because it thought that it could painlessly right a wrong.

The Court took quite alot of heat for the decision in Connick v. Thompson, perhaps justifiably so given the outlandish behavior of the New Orleans District Attorney's Office in that case. This decision may have been intended to right the balance somewhat, and make it clear that the Court was unwilling to condone blatant Brady violations by that office.

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