Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Committees of the U. S. House of Representatives issued subpoenas seeking information about the finances of President Trump, his children, and affiliated businesses. The subpoenas were issued to financial institutions and the President’s personal accounting firm. The President in his personal capacity, his children, and affiliated businesses argued that the subpoenas lacked a legitimate legislative purpose and violated the separation of powers. The President did not argue that any of the requested records were protected by executive privilege. The Supreme Court vacated decisions by the D.C. Circuit and the Second Circuit and remanded. The courts below did not take adequate account of the significant separation of powers concerns implicated by congressional subpoenas for the President’s information. A congressional subpoena is valid only if it is “related to, and in furtherance of, a legitimate task of the Congress” and serves a “valid legislative purpose.” Congress may not issue a subpoena for the purpose of “law enforcement,” because that power is assigned to the Executive and the Judiciary. While executive privilege protections should not be transplanted to cases involving nonprivileged, private information, a limitless subpoena power could transform the established practice of the political branches and allow Congress to aggrandize itself at the President’s expense. The subpoenas at issue represent not a run-of-the-mill legislative effort but rather a clash between rival branches of government over records of intense political interest. Separation of powers concerns are no less palpable because the subpoenas were issued to third parties. A balanced approach is necessary to address those concerns. Courts should carefully assess whether the asserted legislative purpose warrants the significant step of involving the President and his papers. Congress may not rely on the President’s information if other sources could reasonably provide Congress the information it needs in light of its particular legislative objective. Courts should insist on a subpoena no broader than reasonably necessary to support Congress’s legislative objective and should be attentive to the nature of the evidence that a subpoena advances a valid legislative purpose. Courts should assess the burdens imposed on the President and incentives to use subpoenas for institutional advantage. Other considerations may also be pertinent. View "Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP" on Justia Law

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The New York County District Attorney’s Office served a subpoena duces tecum on the personal accounting firm of President Trump, seeking financial records relating to the President and his businesses. The President, acting in his personal capacity, sought to enjoin enforcement of the subpoena. The Second Circuit and the Supreme Court affirmed the denial of injunctive relief. Article II and the Supremacy Clause do not categorically preclude or require a heightened standard for the issuance of a state criminal subpoena to a sitting President. The Court examined precedent concerning federal subpoenas, from Aaron Burr’s motion for a subpoena directed at President Jefferson, through Monroe, Clinton, and Nixon, and concluded that, with respect to the state subpoena, the President’s “generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial.” The Court rejected an argument that a state grand jury subpoena for a sitting President’s personal records must meet a heightened standard of need because of the possibility of diversion, stigma, and harassment. The President conceded that the criminal investigations are permitted under Article II and the Supremacy Clause; the receipt of a subpoena does not categorically magnify the harm to the President’s reputation and grand jury secrecy rules aim to prevent the stigma the President anticipates. Although a President cannot be treated as an “ordinary individual” when executive communications are sought, with regard to private papers, a President stands in “nearly the same situation with any other individual.” Absent a need to protect the Executive, the public interest in fair and effective law enforcement cuts in favor of comprehensive access to evidence. A President may avail himself of the same protections available to every other citizen, including the right to challenge the subpoena on grounds permitted by state law, such as bad faith and undue burden or breadth. A President can raise subpoena-specific constitutional challenges in either a state or a federal forum and can challenge the subpoena as an attempt to influence the performance of his official duties, in violation of the Supremacy Clause. View "Trump v. Vance" on Justia Law

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The Major Crimes Act (MCA) provides that, within “the Indian country,” “[a]ny Indian who commits” certain enumerated offenses “shall be subject to the same law and penalties as all other persons committing any of [those] offenses, within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States,” 18 U.S.C. 1153(a). “Indian country” includes “all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government.” McGirt was convicted by an Oklahoma state court of sexual offenses. He unsuccessfully argued in state postconviction proceedings that the state lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him because he is an enrolled member of the Seminole Nation and his crimes took place on the Creek Reservation. The Supreme Court held that McGirt was entitled to a federal trial. For MCA purposes, land reserved for the Creek Nation since the 19th century remains “Indian country.” An 1856 Treaty promised that “no portion” of Creek lands “would ever be embraced or included within, or annexed to, any Territory or State,” 11 Stat. 700, and that the Creeks would have the “unrestricted right of self-government,” with “full jurisdiction” over enrolled Tribe members. Once a federal reservation is established, only Congress can diminish or disestablish it. Congress did not end the Creek Reservation during the “allotment era,” when Congress sought to pressure many tribes to abandon their communal lifestyles and parcel their lands into smaller lots owned by individual tribal members. Other limitations on the promised right to self-governance, including abolishing the Creeks’ tribal courts and requiring Presidential approval for certain tribal ordinances fell short of eliminating all tribal interest in the contested lands. Many of Oklahoma’s arguments rest “on state prosecutorial practices that defy the MCA, rather than on the law’s plain terms.” Acknowledging the potential consequences of its ruling, such as unsettling convictions and frustrating the state’s ability to prosecute future crimes, the Court stated that Oklahoma and its tribes have proven that they can work successfully together and Congress remains free to supplement its statutory directions about the lands. View "McGirt v. Oklahoma" on Justia Law

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Andrus was six years old, his mother sold drugs out of their apartment. She turned to prostitution and regularly left her five children to binge on drugs. She often was high and had drug-addicted, sometimes violent, boyfriends. When Andrus was 16, he served as a lookout while others committed a robbery. During 18 months in juvenile detention, he was exposed to gangs, drugs, and extended solitary confinement, resulting in suicidal urges. In 2008, Andrus, then 20, attempted a carjacking while under the influence of PCP-laced marijuana. Andrus fired multiple shots, killing two people. At his capital murder trial, Andrus’ defense counsel declined to present an opening statement or evidence. In his closing argument, counsel conceded Andrus’ guilt. The jury found Andrus guilty of capital murder. During the punishment phase, the prosecution presented evidence of Andrus' aggressive behavior in juvenile detention; that Andrus had gang tattoos; that Andrus had hit, kicked, and thrown excrement at prison officials while awaiting trial; and that Andrus was involved in an aggravated robbery. Counsel raised no material objections. In mitigation, counsel focused on Andrus’ basic biographical information, without revealing the circumstances of Andrus’ childhood; the only expert witness focused on the general effects of drug use on adolescent brains. A prison counselor testified that Andrus “started having remorse.” Andrus testified about his childhood. The jury sentenced Andrus to death. In Andrus’ state habeas proceeding, Andrus’ life history came to light. Andrus’ counsel offered no reason for failing to investigate Andrus’ history. The trial court recommended a new sentencing proceeding. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated. Andrus demonstrated counsel’s deficient performance under Strickland, but the Court of Criminal Appeals may have failed properly to engage with the question of whether Andrus established that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced him. View "Andrus v. Texas" on Justia Law

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The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) established the three-strikes rule, which generally prevents a prisoner from bringing suit in forma pauperis (IFP) if he has had three or more prior suits dismissed on the grounds that they were frivolous, malicious, or failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. 28 U.S.C. 1915(g). Colorado inmate Lomax sued prison officials to challenge his expulsion from the facility’s sex-offender treatment program and moved for IFP status. He had already brought three unsuccessful legal actions during his time in prison. The district court and Tenth Circuit rejected Lomax’s argument that two of the dismissals should not count as strikes because they were without prejudice. The Supreme Court affirmed. Section 1915(g)’s three-strikes provision refers to any dismissal for failure to state a claim, whether with prejudice or without. A Section 1915(g) strike-call hinges exclusively on the basis for the dismissal, regardless of the decision’s prejudicial effect. Courts can and sometimes do dismiss frivolous actions without prejudice. View "Lomax v. Ortiz-Marquez" on Justia Law

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Banister was convicted by a Texas court of aggravated assault and sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment. After exhausting his state remedies, he unsuccessfully sought federal habeas relief. Banister timely filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), which allows a litigant to file a motion to alter or amend a district court’s judgment within 28 days from the entry of judgment, with no possibility of an extension. That motion was denied. Banister filed a notice of appeal in accordance with the timeline for appealing a judgment after a Rule 59(e) denial. A timely Rule 59 motion suspends the finality of the original judgment for purposes of appeal. The Fifth Circuit construed Banister’s Rule 59(e) motion as a successive habeas petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. 2244(b), and dismissed his appeal as untimely. The Supreme Court reversed Because a Rule 59(e) motion to alter or amend a habeas court’s judgment is not a second or successive habeas petition, Banister’s appeal was timely. The phrase “second or successive application” does not simply refer to all habeas filings made successively in time, following an initial application. Rule 59(e) applies in habeas proceedings, deriving from courts’ common-law power to alter or amend their own judgments before any appeal. The purposes of AEDPA--reducing delay, conserving judicial resources, and promoting finality--are served by Rule 59(e), which offers a narrow window to seek relief; limits requests for reconsideration to matters properly raised in the challenged judgment; and consolidates proceedings into a single final judgment for appeal. View "Banister v. Davis" on Justia Law

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During former New Jersey Governor Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign, Fort Lee’s mayor refused to endorse Christie. Kelly, Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff, Port Authority Deputy Executive Director, Baroni, and another official decided to reduce from three to one the number of lanes reserved at the George Washington Bridge’s toll plaza for Fort Lee’s commuters. To disguise the political retribution, the lane realignment was said to be for a traffic study. Port Authority traffic engineers were asked to collect some numbers. An extra toll collector was paid overtime. The lane realignment caused four days of gridlock, ending only when the Port Authority’s Executive Director learned of the scheme. The Third Circuit affirmed the convictions of Baroni and Kelly for wire fraud, fraud on a federally funded program, and conspiracy to commit those crimes. The Supreme Court reversed. The scheme did not aim to obtain money or property. The wire fraud statute refers to “any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses,” 18 U.S.C. 1343. The federal-program fraud statute bars “obtain[ing] by fraud” the “property” (including money) of a federally funded program or entity, section 666(a)(1)(A). The statutes are limited to the protection of property rights and do not authorize federal prosecutors to set standards of good government. The Court rejected arguments that the defendants sought to take control of the Bridge’s physical lanes or to deprive the Port Authority of the costs of compensating employees. Their realignment of the access lanes was an exercise of regulatory power; a scheme to alter a regulatory choice is not one to take government property. The time and labor of the employees were an incidental byproduct of that regulatory object. Neither defendant sought to obtain the services that the employees provided. View "Kelly v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 48 states and in federal court, a single juror’s vote to acquit is enough to prevent a conviction; Louisiana and Oregon punish people based on 10-to-2 verdicts. Ramos was convicted in a Louisiana court by a 10-to-2 jury verdict and was sentenced to life without parole. The Supreme Court reversed. The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, as incorporated against the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, requires a unanimous verdict to convict a defendant of a serious offense. Juror unanimity is a vital common law right. The Court rejected an “invitation” to “perform a cost-benefit analysis on the historic features of common law jury trials and to conclude that unanimity does not make the cut.” In overturning its 1972 “Apodaca” decision, the Court stated that the reasoning, in that case, was “gravely mistaken” and “sits uneasily with 120 years of preceding case law.” The fact that Louisiana and Oregon may need to retry defendants convicted of felonies by non-unanimous verdicts whose cases are still pending on direct appeal “will surely impose a cost, but new rules of criminal procedure usually do.” View "Ramos v. Louisiana" on Justia Law

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A deputy ran a license plate check and discovered that the truck belonged to Glover, whose driver’s license had been revoked. The deputy stopped the truck, assuming that Glover was driving. Glover was driving and was charged with driving as a habitual violator. The trial court granted his motion to suppress all evidence from the stop. The Kansas Supreme Court agreed that the deputy violated the Fourth Amendment by stopping Glover without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The Supreme Court reversed. When the officer lacks information negating an inference that the owner is driving the vehicle, an investigative traffic stop made after running a vehicle’s license plate and learning that the registered owner’s driver’s license has been revoked is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. An officer may initiate a brief investigative traffic stop when he has “a particularized and objective basis” to suspect wrongdoing. The level of suspicion required is less than necessary for probable cause and depends on “the factual and practical considerations of everyday life.” The deputy’s common sense inference that the owner of a vehicle was likely its driver provided reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop. Empirical studies demonstrate that drivers with suspended or revoked licenses frequently continue to drive. Officers, like jurors, may rely on probabilities in the reasonable suspicion context. The presence of additional facts might dispel reasonable suspicion but this deputy possessed no information to rebut the reasonable inference that Glover was driving his own truck. View "Kansas v. Glover" on Justia Law

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Davis, previously convicted of two state felonies, pleaded guilty as a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2), and to possessing drugs with the intent to distribute, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C). The presentence report noted pending drug and gun charges stemming from a separate 2015 state arrest. The district court sentenced Davis to 57 months in prison, to run consecutively to any sentences that the Texas courts might impose. Davis did not object. Davis appealed, arguing that his 2015 state offenses and his 2016 federal offenses were part of the “same course of conduct,” and that under the Sentencing Guidelines (1B1.3(a)(2), 5G1.3(c)), the sentences should have run concurrently. The Fifth Circuit refused to consider Davis’ argument, characterizing it as raising factual issues; in the Fifth Circuit “[q]uestions of fact capable of resolution by the district court upon proper objection at sentencing can never constitute plain error.” The Supreme Court vacated, granting a petition for certiorari and a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis. The Fifth Circuit’s “outlier practice” of refusing to review certain unpreserved factual arguments for plain error lacks a legal basis. Rule 52(b) states: “A plain error that affects substantial rights may be considered even though it was not brought to the court’s attention.” Rule 52(b) does not immunize factual errors from plain-error review. Supreme Court precedent does not purport to shield any category of errors from plain-error review. View "Davis v. United States" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law