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Supreme Court Decision Update - Carey v. Musladin

supreme1.jpgIn yesterday’s other Supreme Court decision, Carey v. Musladin (PDF of the opinion), the Court took a look at a new issue for the Supremes, whether spectators at murder trials can wear buttons with pictures of the victim on them. There’s also a little bit about habeas corpus law in there, which must have the Bush Administration up in arms, since they thought they had already eradicated habeas corpus.

QuizLaw Analysis: Well this comes from the Ninth Circuit, and since the guys over in the Ninth said “no” to the buttons, you should know where this is going - the Supremes reversed, unanimously agreeing that folks who sit in at a murder trial can wear buttons with victim pics because this doesn’t unfairly prejudice the jury against the defendant. The Supremes declined to go any further, however, despite the State’s plea that every spectator should be required to wear at least 37 pieces of flair.

So this started with a murder trial? Yup. In 1994, Mathew Musladin shot and killed a man. He confessed to the murder but claimed it was in self-defense. The jury didn’t buy this, and they hit him with a first-degree murder conviction. Musladin appealed the verdict however, claiming that there was prejudice because the victim’s family members were at the trial with the victim’s photo on buttons. The California Court of Appeal didn’t buy this argument, concluding that the buttons would likely just be seen as a sign of grief by the jury, and they wouldn’t serve to brand Musladin as guilty in the jury’s eyes. Musladin then moved on up to the Ninth Circuit via a writ of habeas corpus, and the Ninth Circuit reversed this because the Ninth found that the state court decision went against established federal law.

Who got the pleasure of writing this unanimous decision? Turns out the opinion itself wasn’t unanimous, just the final vote. There’s a majority decision written by Justice Thomas, and joined by Chief Justice Johnny and Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer and Alito. Then there are separate concurring opinions from Justices Kennedy, Souter and Stevens.

Lay Clarence’s opinion on me, would you? Things are pretty straight forward here. Thomas begins by noting that federal habeas relief can only be granted where it’s clear that the state court decision at issue went against established federal law. There are two main cases of relevant federal law here. The first is Estelle v. Williams, where the issue was whether there is a Constitutional violation of one’s rights when a defendant is forced to show up in what are obviously prison garbs. The Supremes said this was definitely prejudicial and that the State can’t compel a defendant to wear prison clothes. In the second case, Holbrook v. Flynn, the courtroom conduct at issue was having uniformed cops sitting right behind the defendant. Here the Supremes found that this wasn’t quite inherently prejudicial because there wasn’t an “unacceptable risk” that the jury would consider impermissible factors.

Now both of these cases were about state-sponsored acts, because it was the state which made the defendant wear prison clothes, and the state that made the uniformed cops sit in the courtroom. Here, however, we’re talking private action, not state-sponsored action, and the Court has never addressed when private action in the courtroom is inherently prejudicial to the point that it deprives a defendant of a fair trial.

And since the Court has never addressed the matter, there is no clear federal law. In fact, lower courts have been all over the place on this issue. Thus, Thomas can’t say that the California state court unreasonably applied established federal law, so the Ninth Circuit never should have reversed the California court, and that’s that

What’s Kennedy’s take? Kennedy starts off by saying that there should be a new trial whenever the defendant can show that there was an atmosphere of coercion or intimidation. And to Kennedy’s mind, this should be true regardless of who create the atmosphere, whether it was the State or private individuals. But Kennedy agrees with the outcome here - he doesn’t see that the buttons were coercive or intimidating enough to create such a prejudicial atmosphere. However, he does think there may need to be a new rule for this type of situation, and he suggests that the lower courts may have to play around with this.

And what about Souter? Souter thinks there’s a clear federal standard here because there are plenty of cases which look at how courtroom conditions can threaten a fair trial, and they all ask the question of whether there’s an “unacceptable risk” that the jury will consider “impermissible factors.” And there’s no reason that this set of cases shouldn’t apply to private spectators. Here, Souter sees no question that the buttons at least raise a risk that the jury will make an improper consideration, but he concurs with Thomas because he doesn’t think that risk is unacceptable. Most courts that have looked at the button issue have left the convictions alone, which means, to him, that the risk is ok. Plus, he says there may be a minor First Amendment issue about the button-wearing.

And finally, what about Stevens? Stevens basically writes separately to say two things. First, he would have signed on with Souter, except he doesn’t like the suggestion that there’s any First Amendment protection issue here. Second, he doesn’t like some of the language Thomas cites from an earlier O’Conner decision. He feels that O’Conner’s original language was already “dictum about dicta” and that “its repetition today is wholly unnecessary.”