Pennsylvania v. Ritchie

480 U. S. 39

February 24, 1987

George Ritchie was accused of raping his minor daughter. In preparation for the trial, he sought confidential records that CYS, a child protective service, had compiled in the course of investigating charges of sexual misconduct which were leveled against him. These requests were denied due to Pennsylvania’s asserted interest in keeping those records private. At trial, Ritchie was convicted. Upon appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the lower court must allow the trial judge and Ritchie to review the CYS records, and that a new trial would be ordered if the records contained exculpatory evidence.

By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court held that they could review the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling. Justice Powell wrote for the majority. Normally, the Court could only review only if the judgment below was final. An exception to this rule did exist when final judgment had been reached on the federal issue, and there would be no future opportunity for review of that issue. Powell felt that this was the case here. Although there were some routes by which the issue might reach the Court again, they were uncertain and inefficient.

Turning to the merits, Powell wrote for a plurality that no confrontation clause issue was present. He said that the confrontation clause only applied to the right to cross-examine at trial, not the right to acquire material before trial for the cross-examination. For a majority, Powell found that the right to due process required that the trial judge have the opportunity to fully review the CYS material, particularly in light of the fact that CYS did allow its material to be released for some other purposes. Due to the privacy considerations though, Powell found that the due process clause did not require that Ritchie be given access to the records.

Blackmun joined the opinion except for the confrontation clause section. In a concurrence, he wrote that effective cross-examination could not occur without a right to relevant material, and that therefore access to the records was Constitutionally required on that basis. In a dissent joined by Marshall, Brennan argued that Court precedents mandated that documents such as the CYS records be turned over to meet the strictures of the confrontation clause. Brennan’s analysis of the precedents is convincing, but at the same time, I’m not convinced that those precedents themselves were correctly decided, and so I would have joined Powell in his discussion on the confrontation clause issue.

Stevens, joined by Brennan, Marshall, and Scalia, dissented on the issue of jurisdiction. Because routes back to the Supreme Court after final judgment on the merits did exist, the Court had no authority to take the case, even if the path back would be winding and difficult. I do not know enough about the Court’s jurisdictional rules to make an informed judgment about whether Stevens is correct, but regardless I think it was a wise decision to review Ritchie when it did. In one set of circumstances, the Court could have only gotten jurisdiction if the CYS had refused to turn over the documents – I don’t think the Supreme Court should have to rely on a state employee ignoring a subpoena in order to get a chance to decide a case. I also agree with Powell that the privacy interests in protecting the records served as a good justification for the Court intervening when it did.

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