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Supreme Court Decision Update - Hartman v. Moore

supreme1.jpgThe facts of Hartman v. Moore (PDF of the opinion) are a little complicated, but here’s the essential tidbits. An optical scanning company (REI) lobbied the US Postal Service to embrace a new scanning technology, which the Postal Service eventually did; however, the Postal Service used a competitor’s services. Postal Service inspectors then investigated REI and it’s chief executive (Moore) for an alleged kickback scandal and for allegedly getting improperly involved in the search for a new Postmaster General. A federal prosecutor then sued REI and Moore on these charges, but the District Court acquitted REI and Moore, finding no evidence to support the prosecutor’s claims. Moore then sued the prosecutor and the Postal Service inspectors for, among other things, retaliatory-prosecution (arguing that they went after him to punish him for his original lobbying efforts). The District Court dismissed the claims against the prosecutor based on the principle that there is immunity for prosecutorial judgment. The claims against the Postal Service inspectors were ultimately allowed to survive, despite the inspectors’ argument that there was probable cause supporting the original criminal charges which means the inspectors should also be entitled to qualified immunity. The Court of Appeals also rejected this argument, finding that there was evidence of a retaliatory motive by the inspectors, and now we’re with at the Supreme Court.

Got that?

Well the majority of the Supremes, in an opinion written by Justice Souter (and joined by Justices Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas), reversed and remanded the case, finding that a plaintiff (such as Moore) who alleges retaliatory-prosecution has the burden of pleading and showing that there was no probable cause for the original criminal charges. Basically, when someone brings a retaliatory-prosecution case, they have to show two things: (1) that the defendant’s alleged nonretalitatory grounds (i.e., their stated reason for bringing the original prosecution) were not sufficient to provoke whatever harm the plaintiff in the retaliatory-prosecution case ultimately suffered; and (2) once that is done, the plaintiff must show that the retaliatory-prosecution directly caused their injury. On this second point, the Supremes reasoned that the issue is complicated when the original charges were criminal (rather than civil), and the reason for this complication is that the injury was technically caused by the immune-prosecutor and the plaintiff has to show some connection between that injury and the third-party inspectors who merely pressed charges. To do this, the Court reasoned, the plaintiff must be able to show that there was no probable cause for the original charges. If there was probable cause, then this causal connection is not likely to be present (although this issue is not necessarily dispositive in every case).

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Breyer, dissented, arguing that the burden should not be on the plaintiff. Instead, Justice Ginsburg would place the burden, as the Court of Appeals did, on the postal inspectors to show that, even if there was no retaliatory motive, the federal prosecutors would have filed the original charges anyway.

Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alioto were not involved in the decision of this case.