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Supreme Court Decision Update - Youngblood v. West Virginia

supreme3.jpgIn the first of today’s decisions, Youngblood v. West Virginia (PDF of the opinion), the Court basically tells a West Virginia court that it messed up and should try again, because it failed to consider a criminal defendant’s claim that his constitutional rights were violated by the suppression of relevant evidence.

QuizLaw Analysis: With regard to criminal procedure and evidence, this opinion doesn’t really create any new law – it just clarifies that all materially relevant evidence must be handed over to the defense by the prosecution, and that the prosecution can be held responsible for the cops’ destruction or suppression of evidence. However, according to Justices Scalia and Kennedy’s dissents, this opinion does open a door to problems with regard to appellate practice, and Scalia does his best to bitch-slap the court for doing what it did (vacating and remanding a lower court’s opinion without finding that the lower court committed any error in judgment).

In 2001, Denver A. Youngblood was indicted by West Virginia for abducting three women and sexually assaulting one of them. He eventually went to trial and was eventually convicted and sentenced to 26-60 years in the clink. After sentencing, he moved to have the verdict set aside on the basis that the case investigator had discovered new evidence which was exculpatory. He claimed that this evidence, a note written by two of the kidnapped women, was suppressed by a state trooper and that this suppression violated the constitutional requirement that evidence which favors the defense must be handed over. This is known as a Brady violation, named after the 1963 Supreme Court case of Brady v. Maryland, which affirmatively noted the State’s obligation to turn over such evidence.

The trial court denied Youngblood’s request. While it didn’t get into the Brady issue, it simply found that the evidence wasn’t exculpatory and, at best, simply could have impeached some of the testimony offered by the prosecution (that is, shown that the testimony was false, or at least given strong credence to an argument that it was false). In addition, because the trooper didn’t give the note to the prosecutors, the court said the State couldn’t be blamed for not sharing it with the defense. This decision was affirmed by the appeals court on the basis that the trial court had not abused its discretion in reaching its conclusion. The appeals court also did not look into the issue of whether there was a Brady violation, which the dissent took serious issue with.

In a per curiam decision (i.e., a decision issued without the name of the authoring Justice), the Supremes say that West Virginia done got it wrong. Brady doesn’t just apply to exculpatory evidence, it also applies to impeachment evidence. This is because the standard is that no “material” evidence can be suppressed, and any evidence is material if there’s a reasonable probability that the criminal case would have come out with a different result had the evidence been properly disclosed. And as for the issue of the West Virginia trooper being the one who suppressed the evidence, the Supremes turned to a 1985 Supreme Court case, U.S. v. Bagley, where it was clarified that a Brady violation occurs where such evidence is suppressed by the cops, without having ever gotten into the prosecutor’s hands, because the prosecutor “has a duty to learn of any favorable evidence known to others acting on the government’s behalf in the case, including the police.”

As such, Younblood had a valid Brady claim and the issue should have been looked at, as the appellate court dissenters noted. Rather than ruling on the merits of that claim on their own, however, the Supremes decided to vacate the appellate decision and kick the case back down (i.e., remand it) so that the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia could take a first stab at looking at the issue.

Justice Scalia filed a dissent, his dissenting opinion actually running longer than the per curiam decision. The focus of his dissent is a 1996 case, Lawrence v. Chater, where the Supremes expanded the scope of when they could vacate and remand a no-fault case (i.e., where the lower court did not commit some error). Scalia dissented to that opinion because he thought this expansion was a bad idea with risky consequences. And he thinks today’s Youngblood decision “brings this prediction to fulfillment,” since the majority says it’s remanding the case simply because “it would be better to have the benefit of the views of the full Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia on the Brady issue.”

When Scalia dissented in Lawrence, he said that he believed there were only three narrow situations when the Supremes should vacate and remand without first finding some error in the lower court’s judgment, and he doesn’t believe any of those situations apply to Youngblood: (i) there has been no change in the law, such as new legislation or a Supreme Court ruling, that would effect the original outcome; (ii) there is no need for clarification of the lower court’s opinion to ensure that the Supremes actually have jurisdiction over the issue; and (iii) the State has not admitted to any error. As such, Scalia thinks the Court is going well outside of its bounds simply because it thinks it would be better to see what the lower court thinks first. He thinks this is essentially asking the lower court to write what amounts to an amicus brief, and he’s having none of it. In spanking the Court, Scalia even goes so far to quote the seminal 1803 Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison in discussing the fact that this ruling steps outside the bounds of appropriate appellate practice.

Justice Kennedy also filed a dissent, though his was a brief little paragraph. He notes that he assented to the Lawrence decision ten years ago, but thinks that today’s ruling unnecessarily expands on Lawrence and agrees with Scalia that cases shouldn’t be vacated and remanded, without a finding of judgmental error, “simply for further explanation.”