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When petitioner was tried, the Massachusetts courtroom could not accommodate all potential jurors. During jury selection, a court officer excluded any member of the public who was not a potential juror, including petitioner’s mother and her minister. Defense counsel neither objected at trial nor raised the issue on direct review. Petitioner was convicted of murder. Five years later, he sought a new trial, arguing that his attorney had provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the closure. The Supreme Court affirmed the state courts in rejecting the argument. In the context of a public trial violation during jury selection, where the error is neither preserved nor raised on direct review but is raised later via an ineffective-assistance claim, the defendant must demonstrate prejudice to secure a new trial. A public trial violation is a structural error, which “affect[s] the framework within which the trial proceeds,” but does not always lead to fundamental unfairness. If an objection is made and the issue is raised on direct appeal, the defendant generally is entitled to automatic reversal. If the defendant does not preserve a structural error on direct review but raises it later in an ineffective-assistance claim, the defendant generally bears the burden to show “a reasonable probability that . . . the result of the proceeding would have been different” but for attorney error or that the violation was so serious as to render the trial fundamentally unfair. Petitioner has not shown a reasonable probability of a different outcome or that the trial was fundamentally unfair and is not entitled to a new trial. His trial was not conducted in secret or in a remote place; closure was limited to voir dire; venire members who did not become jurors observed the proceedings; and the record indicates no basis for concern. View "Weaver v. Massachusetts" on Justia Law

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Defendants were indicted for the kidnapping, robbery, and murder of Catherine Fuller. The prosecution argued that Fuller was attacked by a large group, producing the testimony of two men who confessed to participating in a group attack and cooperated in return for leniency. Other witnesses corroborated aspects of their testimony. The prosecution played a videotape of defendant Yarborough’s statement to detectives, describing how he was part of a large group that carried out the attack. None of the defendants rebutted the witnesses’ claims that Fuller was killed in a group attack. Long after their convictions became final, seven defendants discovered that the government had withheld evidence: the identity of a man seen running into the alley after the murder and stopping near the garage where Fuller’s body had already been found; statements of a passerby who claimed to hear groans coming from a closed garage; and evidence tending to impeach three witnesses. The Supreme Court affirmed the D.C. courts in rejecting their Brady claims, finding the withheld evidence not material. Evidence is material when there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different, given the context of the entire record. An argument that, had defendants known about the withheld evidence, they could have raised an alternative theory, that a single perpetrator (or two) had attacked Fuller “is too little, too weak, or too distant from the main evidentiary points to meet Brady’s standards.” The undisclosed impeachment evidence was largely cumulative of impeachment evidence already in use at trial. View "Turner v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 1985, Alabama charged McWilliams with rape and murder, one month after the Supreme Court’s decision in Ake v. Oklahoma. Finding McWilliams indigent, the court ordered a psychiatric evaluation. The state convened a commission, which concluded that McWilliams was competent and had not been suffering from mental illness at the time of the offense. A jury convicted McWilliams and recommended a death sentence. Before sentencing, defense counsel successfully requested neurological and neuropsychological testing. McWilliams was examined by a neuropsychologist employed by the state, who concluded that McWilliams was likely exaggerating his symptoms, but apparently had genuine neuropsychological problems. Counsel then received updated records from the commission and Department of Corrections mental health records. At the sentencing hearing, defense counsel unsuccessfully requested a continuance to evaluate the new material and assistance by someone with expertise in psychological matters. The court sentenced McWilliams to death. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit's denial of habeas relief. The Alabama courts’ determination that McWilliams received all the assistance to which Ake entitled him was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. Ake requires the state to provide an indigent defendant with “access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” Even if Alabama met the examination requirement, it did not meet any of the other three. The Eleventh Circuit should determine on remand whether the error had the “substantial and injurious effect or influence” required to warrant a grant of habeas relief. View "McWilliams v. Dunn" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, most of whom are not California residents, sued BMS in California state court, alleging that the pharmaceutical company’s drug Plavix had damaged their health. BMS is incorporated in Delaware and headquartered in New York; it maintains substantial operations in New York and New Jersey. BMS engages in business activities in California and sells Plavix there, but did not develop, create a marketing strategy for, manufacture, label, package, or work on the regulatory approval for Plavix in California. The nonresident plaintiffs did not allege that they obtained Plavix from a California source, that they were injured in California, or that they were treated for their injuries in California. The California Superior Court found that it had general jurisdiction. The state supreme court found that BMS’s “wide-ranging” contacts with the state supported a finding of specific jurisdiction over the nonresident plaintiffs’ claims. The Supreme Court reversed. For general jurisdiction, the “paradigm forum” is an “individual’s domicile,” or, for corporations, “an equivalent place, one in which the corporation is fairly regarded as at home.” Specific jurisdiction requires the suit to “aris[e] out of or relat[e] to the defendant’s contacts with the forum.” The primary concern is the burden on the defendant. The California Supreme Court found specific jurisdiction without identifying any adequate link between the state and the nonresidents’ claims. It is not relevant that BMS conducted research in California on matters unrelated to Plavix. BMS’s decision to contract with a California company to distribute Plavix nationally does not provide a sufficient basis for personal jurisdiction. View "Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California" on Justia Law

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Hutton accused Mitchell and Simmons of stealing a sewing machine in which he had hidden $750. On September 16, 1985, Hutton drove the two around, pointing a gun. Hutton recovered the machine. Simmons survived two gunshot wounds to the head. Mitchell was found dead. An Ohio jury convicted Hutton of aggravated murder, attempted murder, and kidnapping, finding that Hutton engaged in “a course of conduct involving the . . . attempt to kill two or more persons,” and that Hutton murdered Mitchell while “committing, attempting to commit, or fleeing immediately after . . . kidnapping” as “aggravating circumstances.” The court instructed the jury that it could recommend a death sentence only if it unanimously found that the state “prove[d] beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances, of which the Defendant was found guilty, outweigh[ed] the [mitigating factors].” The jury recommended death. The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed that sentence. Hutton sought habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2254, arguing that the court failed to tell jurors that they could consider only the aggravating factors they had found during the guilt phase. Hutton had not objected to the instruction or raised this argument on direct appeal. The Supreme Court held that the Sixth Circuit erred in reviewing Hutton’s claim under the miscarriage of justice exception to procedural default. Assuming that the alleged error could provide a basis for excusing default, the Sixth Circuit should have considered whether a properly instructed jury could have recommended death. Instead, it considered whether the alleged error might have affected the jury’s verdict. It was not shown by clear and convincing evidence that no properly instructed reasonable juror would have concluded that the aggravating circumstances in Hutton’s case outweigh the mitigating circumstances. Ohio courts weighed those factors and concluded that the death penalty was justified. View "Jenkins v. Hutton" on Justia Law

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Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the government ordered the detention of hundreds of illegal aliens. Plaintiffs, subsequently removed from the U.S., filed a putative class action against Executive Officials and Wardens, seeking damages, alleging that harsh pretrial conditions were punitive and were based race, religion, or national origin and that the Wardens allowed guards to abuse them. They also cited 42 U.S.C. 1985(3), which forbids certain conspiracies to violate equal protection rights. The Supreme Court rejected all claims, reversing the Second Circuit. In 42 U.S.C. 1983, Congress provided a damages remedy for plaintiffs whose constitutional rights were violated by state officials. There was no corresponding remedy for constitutional violations by federal agents. In 1971, the Supreme Court recognized (in Bivens) an implied damages action for violations of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures by federal agents. The Court later allowed Bivens-type remedies in Fifth Amendment gender-discrimination and Eighth Amendment Cruel and Unusual Punishments cases. Bivens will not be extended to a new context if there are “special factors counseling hesitation in the absence of affirmative action by Congress.” To avoid interference with sensitive Executive Branch functions or any inquiry into national-security issues, a Bivens remedy should not be extended to the claims concerning confinement conditions. With respect to the Wardens, Congress did not provide a damages remedy against federal jailers in the Prison Litigation Reform Act 15 years after the Court’s expressed caution about extending Bivens. Qualified immunity bars the claims under 42 U.S.C. 1985(3). Reasonable officials in defendants’ positions would not have known with sufficient certainty that section 1985(3) prohibited their joint consultations and the resulting policies. There is no clearly established law on the issue whether agents of the same executive department are distinct enough to “conspire” within the meaning of the statute. View "Ziglar v. Abbasi" on Justia Law

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The rock group “The Slants,” chose that name to dilute the term’s denigrating force as a derogatory term for Asians. The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied an application for registration of the name under 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), which prohibits the registration of trademarks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” The Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit in finding the clause unconstitutional. The Court first rejected an argument that the clause applies only to natural or juristic persons. The Court then held that the clause is subject to the Free Speech Clause, which does not regulate government speech. Trademarks are private, not government speech. "If trademarks become government speech when they are registered, the Federal Government is babbling prodigiously and incoherently.” The disparagement clause denies registration to any mark that is offensive to a substantial percentage of the members of any group. That is viewpoint discrimination. The “public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.” The disparagement clause cannot withstand even “relaxed” review. It does not serve a “substantial interest,” nor is it “narrowly drawn.” View "Matal v. Tam" on Justia Law

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North Carolina law made it a felony for a registered sex offender “to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages.” N.C. Gen. Stat. 14–202.5(a), (e). The state has prosecuted over 1,000 people under that law. Petitioner was indicted after posting a statement on his personal Facebook profile about a positive traffic court experience. State courts upheld the law. The Supreme Court reversed. The statute impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment. Today, one of the most important places to exchange views is cyberspace, particularly social media. Even if the statute is content-neutral and subject to intermediate scrutiny, the provision is not “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” While social media will be exploited by criminals and sexual abuse of a child is a most serious crime, the assertion of a valid governmental interest “cannot, in every context, be insulated from all constitutional protections.” The statute “enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens…. With one broad stroke, North Carolina bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge.” The state did not establish that this sweeping law is necessary to keep convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims. View "Packingham v. North Carolina" on Justia Law

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The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act authorizes private lawsuits and fines against “debt collector[s],” defined as anyone who “regularly collects or attempts to collect . . . debts owed or due . . . another,” 15 U.S.C. 1692a(6). CitiFinancial loaned money to petitioners, who defaulted. Santander purchased the defaulted loans from CitiFinancial and sought to collect in ways petitioners believe violated the Act. The district court and Fourth Circuit held that Santander was not a debt collector because it did not regularly seek to collect debts “owed . . . another” but sought instead only to collect debts that it purchased and owned. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed. A company may collect debts that it purchased for its own account, without triggering the statutory definition. The statute’s plain language focuses on third party collection agents regularly collecting for a debt owner—not on a debt owner seeking to collect debts for itself. The Court rejected an argument that the word “owed” is the past participle of the verb “to owe,” and indicates that the debt collector definition must exclude loan originators but embrace debt purchasers. The Court stated that it would not “rewrite a constitutionally valid text under the banner of speculation about what Congress might have done had it faced a question that, on everyone’s account, it never faced.” View "Henson v. Santander Consumer USA Inc." on Justia Law

Posted in: Consumer Law

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In 1999, LeBlanc, then age 16, raped a 62- year-old woman. In 2003, a state trial court sentenced him to life in prison. Virginia had abolished traditional “parole” for felony offenders and enacted its “geriatric release” program, which allows older inmates to receive conditional release under some circumstances. In 2010, the Supreme Court held, in Graham v. Florida, that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses from being sentenced to life without parole and that states must give defendants “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” LeBlanc sought to vacate his sentence in light of Graham. The state court denied the motion, citing the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, that Virginia’s geriatric release program satisfies Graham’s requirement of parole for juvenile offenders: “The regulations for conditional release under this statute provide that if the prisoner meets the qualifications for consideration contained in the statute, the factors used in the normal parole consideration process apply to conditional release decisions under this statute.” LeBlanc filed a federal habeas petition, 28 U.S.C. 2254. The Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit’s grant of relief. The Virginia trial court’s ruling, resting on the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling in Angel, was not objectively unreasonable in light of existing Supreme Court authority. View "Virginia v. LeBlanc" on Justia Law