Monthly Archives: April 2017

Mills v. Maryland

486 U. S. 367

June 6, 1988

Ralph Mills killed a fellow prison inmate, and was sentenced to death. The jury found no mitigating factors, and thus were not afforded the opportunity to decide whether life imprisonment would be a more appropriate sentence. Mills charged that the jury might not have known that they had to unanimously find no mitigating circumstances. If some (but not all) jurors thought there were mitigating circumstances, the death penalty should not have been automatically imposed. Lower courts ruled that reasonable jurors would understand that unanimity was required to reject the presence of mitigating circumstances.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court disagreed in a 5-4 vote. Blackmun stressed that the jury forms did not explicitly spell out that the jury needed to be unanimous to find no mitigating circumstances. It was very plausible, Blackmun contended, that a reasonable juror might be confused. Because of the irreversible nature of the death penalty, it was of added importance that the Court be reasonably certain of how the jury interpreted their instructions. The majority vacated the death sentence, arguing that the jury could plausibly have understood the their instructions incorrectly.

Brennan filed his obligatory concurrence to say that the death penalty was always unconstitutional. Shockingly, Marshall did not join it. I guess he was too distracted by soap operas that particular day. Equally baffling was White’s decision to file a two-sentence concurrence which in essence said ‘I joined the majority opinion because I think it is correct.’ (Is White implying that he sometimes joins majority opinions he thinks are wrong???)

Rehnquist, joined by O’Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy, dissented. He analyzed the judge’s speech to the jurors, which stressed over and over the need for unanimity on every single question. Given this, a reasonable juror would not have misunderstood. Furthermore, Blackmun’s desire for reasonable certainty about the jury’s understanding was contrary to the previous year’s ruling in Brown. Finally, Rehnquist addressed a question that the majority set aside as moot: whether the death sentence was invalid because the trial involved a victim impact statement. Rehnquist here reiterated his belief that the Booth case about victim impact statements was incorrect and ought to be overruled.

I won’t belabor what I’ve said before in many other posts about the death penalty. This decision was absolutely horrible, and if you want to know more, you can start with the two decisions linked in the previous paragraph.

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Maynard v. Cartwright

486 U. S. 356

June 6, 1988

A murderer named Cartwright challenged his death sentence on the ground that an aggravating circumstance which the jury used to give him the death penalty was void for vagueness. That aggravating circumstance? That the murder was “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.” Because there was no further elaboration, and because state courts hadn’t offered any narrowing interpretation, Cartwright charged that these words were too vague to base a death sentence on.

The Court unanimously agreed. White explained that the Court was effectively bound by a 1980 case that had held a similar standard from Georgia to be too vague for Eighth Amendment purposes. In both instances, the standards failed to give any concrete guidance to jurors, and allowed them too much unbounded discretion. White vacated the death sentence, but hinted that new developments in Oklahoma law might allow it to be easily reimposed on remand. Brennan, joined by Marshall, filed his obligatory concurrence to state that the death penalty was always unconstitutional.

Although the 1980 case did control, at least one Justice should have had the guts to call for overruling it. While “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” is not exactly self-defining, in some instances a murder will indisputably fit that description. And Cartwright committed such a murder. I’ll let Byron White himself lay it out for you

“On May 4, 1982, after eating their evening meal in their Muskogee County, Oklahoma, home, Hugh and Charma Riddle watched television in their living room. At some point, Mrs. Riddle left the living room and was proceeding towards the bathroom when she encountered respondent Cartwright standing in the hall holding a shotgun. She struggled for the gun and was shot twice in the legs. The man, whom she recognized as a disgruntled ex-employee, then proceeded to the living room where he shot and killed Hugh Riddle. Mrs. Riddle dragged herself down the hall to a bedroom where she tried to use a telephone. Respondent, however, entered the bedroom, slit Mrs. Riddle’s throat, stabbed her twice with a hunting knife the Riddles had given him for Christmas, and then left the house. Mrs. Riddle survived and called the police.”

I defy anyone to seriously argue that this is not “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.” No one can fail to see that it is. Under the guise of respecting precedent, the Supreme Court once again mutilated justice by letting a murderer go free on patently specious grounds.

Monessen Southwestern R. Co. v. Morgan

486 U. S. 330

June 6, 1988

A railroad worker was permanently injured, allegedly due to the railroad’s negligence. He brought a federal action in Pennsylvania state court to recover lost future earnings. The court did two questionable things, the first based on a state law, and the second based on a state judicial ruling – first, it awarded ‘prejudgment interest,’ which gave the worker interest on damages that accrued prior to the verdict. Second, it instructed the jury not to find the present value of his lost future earnings, but the nominal value of it. Both these things were challenged as inconsistent with the federal law that formed the basis of the suit.

The Court ruled 7-2 that prejudgment interest could not be awarded. White said that state laws allowing prejudgment interest were substantial rules that could not be countenanced unless the federal law clearly allowed them. At the time the federal law was enacted, White contended, prejudgment interest was seen as suspect by most courts. Therefore, it could be presumed that Congress did not intend the law to allow prejudgment interest damages when it was passed. White also noted that Congress had ample opportunity in subsequent years to clearly include prejudgment interest within the law’s scope, but declined to do so.

Turning to the jury instruction question, the Court ruled unanimously that the Pennsylvania court had erred in instructing the jurors to merely find the nominal value. Precedents held that present value was the correct value to find for future earnings, and that the jury needed some freedom in determining the best formula for that calculation. By assuring the jury that the nominal value was legally presumed to be the same as the present value, the judge took this freedom away from the jury. O’Connor, joined by Rehnquist, only concurred in judgment on this issue. She felt that a judge could appropriately suggest that jurors compute nominal value if the judge had carefully studied the economics before doing so.

Blackmun, joined by Marshall, dissented from the prejudgment interest holding. He said the federal law should be interpreted liberally, and with an eye on its purpose of compensating injured workers with damages. Blackmun argued that prejudgment interest was an integral component of making the plaintiff whole, and that the alleged judicial aversion to interest at the time of the law’s passage was overblown. Finally, he felt prejudgment interest was especially appropriate given the rule that the present value should be found for future earnings – interest on pre-verdict lost earnings was simply the other side of that coin.

Once again, as in K mart v. Cartier, my brain is too taxed just from trying to understand this stupid decision to have much of an opinion about its soundness.

K mart Corp. v. Cartier, Inc.

486 U. S. 281

May 31, 1988

A few months after the jurisdiction battle, the Supreme Court was ready for the merits. Section 526 of a law said that foreign goods bearing US trademarks could not be imported without the trademark owner’s permission. Agency regulations provided exceptions to 526 when the same basic entity had common control of both the US trademark and the foreign manufacturer of the goods, and also when the trademark owner had authorized a foreign company to use its trademark. Several trademark owners charged that these regulatory exceptions violated the basic text of 526.

By two different 5-4 alignments, the Court ruled that the ‘common control’ exception was all right, but the ‘authorized use’ exception was not. Kennedy, who wrote the Court’s judgment, said the agency would be deferred to if the text of 526 was ambiguous (Rehnquist, White, Blackmun, O’Connor, and Scalia joined this). He found the text ambiguous with regard to the ‘common control’ issue (White joined this). But he felt that the ‘authorized use’ exception was plainly foreclosed by the statute’s plain language. As a final matter, the ‘authorized use’ exception was severable from the rest of the regulation (Rehnquist, Blackmun, O’Connor, and Scalia joined these two points).

Brennan, joined by Marshall and Stevens, provided the three final votes to maintain the ‘common control’ exception. Brennan provided a seemingly unending discourse into Congressional intent and the history of agency interpretation. Both of which, he contended, proved that ‘common control’ is appropriately understood as a valid exception from 526’s general rule. In a section joined by White, he argued that the possibility of ‘authorized use’ would have been so unthinkable to 526’s original drafters that it did no harm to the statute to recognize it as another exception, even if the plain text seemed to suggest differently.

Scalia, joined by Rehnquist, Blackmun, and O’Connor, found both regulatory exceptions inconsistent with the statute. Scalia charged that the textual statutory ambiguity with respect to the ‘common control’ exception really wasn’t there. Worse yet, he argued, the agency itself interpreted the exception far more narrowly than the Court majority did in their process of finding ambiguity. Scalia also responded to Brennan’s approval of the ‘authorized use’ exception. He found it not quite so unthinkable to the original drafters as Brennan did.

These cases are precisely the kind that cause me to abandon this project for months at a time: ones that are long, not easily distilled, highly technical, and incredibly boring. I really don’t give a rip about foreign products with US trademarks, and I feel sorry for the nine Justices that they were forced to care about the issue for several months in 1988.

New Energy Co. of Ind. v. Limbach

486 U. S. 269

May 31, 1988

Ohio had a law that gave a big tax credit to sellers of Ethanol gasoline, but only if the Ethanol came from Ohio or from a state that gave an equally large tax credit for Ohio Ethanol. An Indiana Ethanol producer wanted the tax credit, but could not get it because Indiana did not offer Ethanol tax credits. The question was whether Ohio’s law violated the Interstate Commerce clause by unfairly restraining commerce.

With Scalia writing, the Court unanimously ruled that Ohio’s law did violate the Commerce clause. Judicial precedent had long since held commercial reciprocity laws out of order, and the fact that this reciprocity law involved a denied tax credits rather than a flat embargo was irrelevant. Precedent also held out of order laws which placed less severe economic disadvantages on out-of-state businesses. Scalia was unimpressed by Ohio’s claim that only the one Indiana seller would be disadvantaged by the law, because the number disadvantaged did not matter.

Under the market-participation doctrine, some discrimination could be acceptable if the state itself was an actor in the economic market, but mere tax credits did not suffice to bring Ohio into the Ethanol market. A case where Maryland was allowed to subsidize in-state car junkers was carefully distinguished. Finally, Scalia rejected as obviously untrue Ohio’s contention that the law was intended to promote health and commerce rather than to discriminate against out-of-state Ethanol.

While Scalia’s opinion seems correct as a legal matter, there does seem to be a really unfair double standard with Interstate Commerce clause cases. Congress seems able to do whatever it wants with no restrictions under the clause at all. But the moment a state does the teeniest, tiniest little bit of commercial discrimination, the Supreme Court brutally slaps them down in summary fashion.

Satterwhite v. Texas

486 U. S. 249

May 31, 1988

In a case called Estelle v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruled that it was Constitutional error to allow psychiatric examination of a defendant in a capital case without notifying the defendant’s counsel. John Satterwhite was examined without notification of his counsel. The doctor who examined him testified at trial that Satterwhite was irredeemably dangerous, and he was sentenced to death. The question was whether this violation was harmless error, given that many other witnesses had provided ample evidence of how dangerous and sociopathic Satterwhite was.

The Court ruled unanimously that the error was not harmless (Kennedy did not participate). O’Connor, writing for a five Justice majority, said that violation of Estelle could sometimes be genuinely harmless, because the error only infects a small portion of the trial rather than the whole ordeal. Nonetheless, the harmlessness of the error had to be beyond a reasonable doubt. Because of the especially impressive and authoritative nature of the doctor’s court testimony, O’Connor was not prepared to conclude that it had not affected the jury’s final decision.

Marshall, joined by Brennan and Blackmun, said that any violation of Estelle should always result in the death sentence being vacated. Because it was usually too difficult to determine whether or not the error was harmless, harmless error analysis should never be undertaken. Furthermore, Estelle itself, and other precedents suggested that harmless error analysis was inappropriate for this particular violation. In a section not joined by Blackmun, Marshall went farther, and contended that absolutely any Constitutional violation in a capital case, even if harmless, must result in the death sentence being overturned. In a separate opinion, Blackmun briefly registered his continuing skepticism of psychiatric testimony in general.

Even though I usually favor upholding death sentences on the basis of harmless error, I must agree with the unanimous Court that this error might not have been harmless. Nevertheless, I’m not at all sure that Estelle was correct in deeming the psychiatric evaluation error in the first place. Certainly, it’s best practices to notify the defendant’s counsel, but to call it a Sixth Amendment violation might go a bit too far.

FDIC v. Mallen

486 U. S. 230

May 31, 1988

The FDIC has the power to suspend bank officials if good evidence shows that the official committed a crime involving dishonesty. There is no pre-suspension hearing, but a post-suspension hearing must be held within 30 days. At the post suspension hearing, there is no unqualified right to oral testimony, though the suspended official may request to proffer it. Mallen, a bank official suspended under these workings, charged that the procedures failed to protect his rights under the Due Process clause.

The Court ruled unanimously that the FDIC procedures were just fine. Justice Stevens said that the need for banks to have trustworthy leadership was compelling enough to allow for a suspension prior to a hearing. The 30 day period afterward to have a hearing, and the 90 day period to reach a final solution were reasonably prompt. Indeed, to shorten these periods would probably work to the bank official’s detriment, argued Stevens, because it would encourage hasty rather than deliberate consideration of the facts. Finally, because oral testimony would often be irrelevant or duplicative, there was no need for an unqualified right to offer it. A legal challenge would still be available, Stevens reminded, in a case where truly relevant oral testimony had been irrationally excluded from consideration.

Another case that’s perfectly reasonable, provided you accept as a premise the Constitutional validity of the expansive administrative state. Maybe it’s a good idea for the government to have the power to suspend rogue bank presidents, but a century ago I doubt the Supreme Court would have found that power consistent with the Constitution.

Amadeo v. Zant

486 U. S. 214

May 31, 1988

A memorandum was found buried in the files of Putnam County, Georgia. It proved that the county had intentionally underrepresented blacks and women in the jury pool. Tony Amadeo, who had been sentenced to death by a Putnam County jury, was well into the process of appealing the death sentence when this memo came to light. When Amadeo tried to overturn his sentence based on the memo, Georgia contended that it was too late in the appeals process to raise this new claim.

Federal judicial precedent states that new claims can be raised very late in the game if the convicted person had no real means of discovering the alleged violation at the proper time. A federal District Court ruled that Amadeo could not possibly have discovered the truth contained in the hidden memo at the time of his trial. A federal Appeals Court reversed, asserting that Amadeo’s lawyer made a tactical, and intentional decision not to challenge the jury composition at the time of trial.

Unanimously, the Supreme Court overturned the Appeals Court. Marshall began by pointing out that the factual findings of district courts can only be set aside if the appeals court finds them to be “clearly erroneous.” Marshall carefully reviewed the facts, and concluded that it would be ridiculous to call the District Court’s findings clearly erroneous. While the facts had some room for interpretation, the District Judge made a perfectly reasonable and defensible finding.

On the narrow legal issue that the Supreme Court addressed, it was correct. But the underlying case makes me sick. Yet again, here’s a depraved murderer trying to get out of his death sentence because of some BS procedural defect. What makes this case especially galling is that the manipulated jury pool was actually¬†favorable¬†to Tony Amadeo. To quote Marshall’s opnion, Amadeo was “a white man with a history of assaulting black people,” and he was thus thrilled that the jury pool had blacks significantly underrepresented.

I don’t care if Putnam County discriminated against blacks and women in the jury pool. Only this ought to matter: did Amadeo actually commit the murder, and did he deserve to die as punishment? In its hellbent determination to elevate irrelevant procedural minutia above those central questions, the American legal system displays a profound sickness and perversion. Sin is sin. Murder is murder. And society is badly scarred when we care less about sin and murder than procedural trivialities.

FERC v. Martin Exploration Management Co.

486 U. S. 204

May 31, 1988

A 1978 law provided a timetable by which different types of natural gas would transition from having a price ceiling to having no price ceiling (i.e. being deregulated). If there was any ambiguity about where certain gas fell on the timetable, it would be treated in the way “which could result in the highest price.” As it turned out, deregulated gas ended up selling for considerably less than regulated gas in the market. Thus, many gas providers contended that the regulated price ceiling classification was the one “which could result in the highest price.”

The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed (White did not participate). Brennan said it was a simple textual case. The gas that theoretically could have the highest price of all was the deregulated gas, and not the gas with price ceilings. That market conditions currently deemed deregulated gas less expensive did not matter. Congress did not intend, Brennan showed, for market conditions to be inquired into in the course of classifying gas. Gas producers also argued that a regulatory agency had abused its authority in putting forth certain rules defining how gas would be classified. To the contrary, said Brennan, the agency had perfect statutory authority to do so, even if they had no affirmatively imposed obligation to do so. All in all, a good textualist ruling.

Budinich v. Becton Dickinson & Co.

486 U. S. 196

May 23, 1988

In May of 1984, a federal court in Colorado issued final judgment on everything but attorneys fees. The attorneys fees issue received final judgment in August. Following this, an appeal was lodged on the merits, but this appeal was dismissed because the time limit for appeal had started running in May, and had expired. The plaintiff then contended that, under a Colorado state law, the clock did not start running on appeals until the question of attorneys fees got settled, and that this state law should be applied by the federal court.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled otherwise. Scalia said that prior cases had largely assumed that judgment was final and ripe for appeal prior to determination of attorneys fees. Since the fees are not a part of the underlying merits, it does not make sense to wait for them to be settled before starting the appeals clock. Furthermore, because uniformity and bright line rules are much to be desired in the realm of federal litigation, Scalia declined the suggestion that federal courts be forced to follow state laws defining when judgments become final. Scalia also brushed aside a last ditch contention that all this was a change in the rules which should be only applied prospectively, and not to the instant case.

This is one of those strange unanimous cases where you fully expect a Brennan/Marshall dissent, but it’s not there. Eventually, you get so used to them backing the ‘little guy,’ no matter what, that a case where it doesn’t happen seems downright shocking.