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Making Sense of Williams v. Illinois

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For those trying to figure out what the law is after today's decision in Williams v. Illinois, here are a couple of points to keep in mind:

"When a fragmented Court decides a case and no single rationale explaining the result enjoys the assent of five Justices, 'the holding of the Court may be viewed as that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds. . . .' " Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188, 193 (1977).

"This test is more easily stated than applied to the various opinions supporting the result in Baldasar."  Nichols v. United States, 511 U.S. 738, 745 (1994).

And it will be more easily stated than applied to the opinions in Williams.

Parts II and III of Justice Alito's plurality opinion are actively opposed by a majority of the Court, so relying on them to get evidence in is risky, to put it mildly.  Let's focus on Part IV.  For the proposition that the report in this case is not "testimonial," the plurality says the report was not testimonial because it was not focused on a particular suspect, while Justice Thomas's concurrence says it is not testimonial because it lacked the formality associated with such things as depositions, affidavits, or certificates of fact.

Which of these is the narrower grounds?  I have no idea.

In the Nichols case noted above, the high court threw up its hands and decided the issue from scratch.  No other court can do that.  If there is a Supreme Court precedent, they have to follow it.  But what is the precedent?

5 Comments

So, Kent, your sage advice to lower courts trying to sort out this mess?

The best I can do is to say that the evidence is admissible if it has the characteristics of the evidence in this case that the plurality thought made it admissible and the characteristics Justice Thomas thought made it admissible.

If it has one but not the other, it's a crapshoot.

I doubt that qualifies as "sage," but it's what we have at this point.

Any notion what this means for a current ME or assistant ME giving his/her opinion based on an autopsy report prepared by a now-unavailable ME or assistant ME? This is a very big problem (and even more of a problem with "cold cases" that have been solved).

I thought that the US Supreme Court, of all courts, should be giving litigants and the courts of appeal common sense guiding principles to apply to a broader set of cases.

All they have done here is muddy the water for everyone (state and federal). They managed to do it on likely the most serious of cases, rape and murder. Nice work.

This may very well be even less workable than Souter's opinion in Missouri v. Seibert. It is these kind of opinions that do not help that causes the Supreme Court to lose the respect it should command from lower courts.

@David Boyd: What do you believe the Court should do? There is no requirement that five out of nine Justices agree on a result and its supporting rationale. The Court is surely aware that this is desirable, but sometimes there just an opinion that commands five votes.

Since the Court failed to agree on a rationale in this case, all it means is that there is no controlling precedent, unless a future case presents the same fact pattern as this one. At some point, which probably won't take more than a year or two, the Court will take another Confrontation Clause case, which will give them another shot at clearing it up.

It might be interesting to rate the Justices on their propensity to vote for eccentric results (those that no other Member of the Court agrees with). Thomas would be pretty high on that list; of course, that makes him a hero in many people's eyes. If any Justice were going to relent in this case, and vote for an opinion he didn't really like, it would have had to be he. That is not something I can imagine Justice Thomas doing.

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