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The SCOTUS Term: Bad on crim law, but could have been worse

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Last year at this time, we were feeling good about the term just completed.  We had racked up major victories settling long-standing and important problems with decisions such as Harrington v. Richter and Cullen v. Pinholster.

This year, about all we can say is, "Well, it could have been worse."  A summary of the criminal and related cases for the term is available here.

Last July, I noted that the right to counsel would be a major theme, with five cases involving defendants complaining about their lawyers.  The defendants were the prevailing parties in four of the five, but in none of the five did the prevailing side get the prize it wanted.
In Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye, defendants won the right to complain about their lawyers' poor performance in plea bargaining despite a subsequent fair trial or fully informed, voluntary plea.  Yet they did not get the prize of reinstating the rejected or lapsed bargain.  The case just goes back to the trial judge with broad discretion what to do with it.  I expect that the prior sentence will stand and the defendant gets nothing for all his litigation a large chunk of the time.

In Martinez v. Ryan (discussed here and here), the defense did not grab the brass ring of extending the constitutional right to counsel into habeas corpus proceedings.  Instead, there is a very narrow rule limited to states that forbid raising ineffective assistance claims on direct appeal, a prohibition states should promptly lift.

In both Martinez and Maples v. Thomas (discussed here), the Court reiterated that Coleman v. Thompson remains the general rule -- ineffective assistance of habeas counsel is not "cause" for defaulting a claim in state habeas.  Martinez made the easily negated exception noted above, and Maples made an exception on unique facts of attorney "abandonment."  But efforts by the defense to blur the line between negligence and abandonment -- and thus make the Maples exception swallow the Coleman rule -- have failed, even in the Ninth Circuit.

The counsel case nominally won by the prosecution was Martel v. Clair, but the defense won the point on the standard to be used when a habeas petitioner wants to change lawyers.  The state won the case, though, because the Supreme Court was considerably more hard-nosed than the Ninth Circuit when applying the standard.

The defense side won the juvenile life-without-parole cases in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, but again they did not reach the brass ring of a categorical exclusion of LWOP for all juvenile murderers.  See posts here, here, and here.  States will have to build in a discretionary sentencing step if they don't have one already.  There are disturbing overtones in the opinion that point in the direction of making that step the kind of bloated monstrosity that capital penalty phase hearings are, but so far that is only an implication and not a holding.

Possibly the most important case of the term to trial prosecutors was the case of expert testimony based on laboratory analysis, Williams v. Illinois.  The state won the case, but what exactly did the prosecution side win from the split opinion?  See this post.  We certainly did not get a clear rule of law, which is after all why we have "one supreme Court" in the first place.  Better than losing, I suppose, but not much.

In the other habeas cases, the Supreme Court spanked several circuits for insufficient deference under ยง2254(d), and it correctly cleared up the question of the date for judging whether a state court opinion is reasonable under existing law in Greene v. Fisher.

On evidence issues, we got some help on interrogating prison inmates about other crimes in Howes v. Fields and fended off a attempt to extend federal constitutional micromanagement of witness identifications in Perry v. New Hampshire.  Tracking a suspect's car with a GPS device is a search subject to the usual Fourth Amendment requirements, the Court decided in United States v. Jones.  I'm okay with that.

So, no blockbusters for either side this term.  The decisions were narrow across the board.  Success in this term is largely measured in damage control.

How about next term?  No blockbusters on the docket yet, but it's still early.

1 Comment

It could have been worse. To me, what is horrible is the growing view that the Supreme Court is a micromanager of the criminal justice system. From ridiculous stays of executions to the utterly bankrupt holding in Frye/Lafler v. Cooper, the Court is asserting a power of general oversight of the criminal justice system. It is now possible for it to be unfair to get a fair trial. That is the kind of Orwellian nonsense that breeds contempt for the Court.

I think the Maples decision edges out Frye/Lafler v. Cooper for sheer awfulness. First off, there's the decision to grant cert. on the unlikely to be repeated facts of that case (something which becomes all the more appalling when compared to the denial of cert. in a case where the Third Circuit told Pennsylvania couldn't apply its fugitive disentitlement doctrine). Second, there was the casual tolerance of sandbagging. Third, there was the intellectually dishonest transmogrification of an innocent mistake into willful neglect. Fourth, there was the appalling criticism of the Alabama AG for having the temerity to aggressively represent its client in a capital case.

The damage to the punishment of criminals may not have been great, but the rule of law took some body blows last term. Let's hope that the next President will use any opportunity to replace Justices on the Court with people who have the proper understanding of the judiciary's role.

As for the juvie justice cases--the willfulness vice law is manifest/

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