Hertz Corp. v. Friend (08-1107), Florida v. Powell (08-1175), Maryland v. Shatzer (08-680), Wilkins v. Gaddy (08-10914), Thaler v. Cardell Haynes (09-273) and order list

February 25, 2010 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court fans!

The Court returned from its extended recess and issued five new decisions this week, including a major diversity jurisdiction ruling and two decisions interpreting a criminal suspect's Miranda-related rights.

As a refresher, federal courts have jurisdiction over cases involving "federal questions" and also cases where there is "diversity" of citizenship between the parties. For purposes of determining whether the latter type of jurisdiction exists ("diversity jurisdiction"), a corporation is deemed to be a citizen of the state in which it is incorporated and the state where it has its principal place of business. Courts had struggled with determining a corporation's "principal place of business," adopting divergent tests. But in Hertz Corp. v. Friend (08-1107), the Court established a uniform approach, adopting a "nerve center" test under which a corporation's "principal place of business" is the "place where the corporation's officers direct, control, and coordinate the corporation's activities" – typically its corporate headquarters. The Court rejected the business activities test adopted by some courts, which looked at the total amount of business activities the corporation engaged in within a given state (plants, offices, etc.) in comparison to other states. Justice Breyer, speaking for a unanimous Court, reasoned that the "nerve center" interpretation was (1) more consistent with the language of the statute (which speaks in terms of a single, principal "place" of business within a state, rather the amount of business taking place in a state), (2) simpler to administer, and (3) consistent with the legislative history, which reflected the desire for a uncomplicated rule. The Court recognized that the nerve center test might not be perfect, but "[a]ccepting occasionally counterintuitive results is the price the legal system must pay to avoid overly complex jurisdictional administration while producing the benefits that accompany a more uniform legal system." Recognizing the possibility that corporations might attempt to manipulate the test, the Court noted that lower courts need not conclude that a corporation's headquarters is its nerve center if the so-called "headquarters" is just a drop box or place where the corporation has periodic board meetings.

Now, on to the Miranda decisions. When Kevin Powell was arrested in Florida, the police gave him a Miranda warning that stated: "You have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions" and "[y]ou have the right to use any of these rights at any time you want during this interview." Powell proceeded to talk before consulting an attorney, his admissions were used against him, and he was convicted. The question presented in Florida v. Powell (08-1175) was whether the warnings Powell received satisfied Miranda's requirement that a suspect "be warned prior to any questioning . . . that he has the right to the presence of an attorney." Citing both Miranda and cases based on the Florida Constitution, the Florida Supreme Court found that the warnings given to Powell misleadingly suggested that he could consult an attorney only prior to questioning, and did not convey that he could have counsel present during questioning. The State petitioned for cert.

Before the Court could address the merits, it had to determine whether it had jurisdiction. Although the Court generally will not review decisions that rest on an adequate and independent state ground, the Court – with Justice Ginsburg writing for all but Justice Stevens – found none on the face of the Florida Supreme Court's opinion because its analysis of federal and state law was so intertwined. On the merits – with Justice Ginsburg now writing for all but Justices Stevens and Breyer – the Court found that the warnings given to Powell were adequate. In the Court's view, the combination of the first warning that Powell had the right to consult with an attorney before any question, with the catch-all warning that he could exercise his rights at any time, reasonably conveyed to Powell that he had a right to an attorney throughout the interrogation. The alternative interpretation, that he or the attorney would have to leave the interrogation room between each question, was not reasonable. The Court dismissed concerns that its holding would encourage law enforcement to give ambiguous Miranda warnings by noting that law enforcement had an interest in giving clear warnings to avoid suppression of inculpatory statements.

Justice Stevens, dissenting, would not have heard the case at all. In his view, the Florida Supreme Court's decision had an adequate and independent basis in the Florida Constitution. And on the merits (now joined by Justice Breyer), he believed that a suspect hearing the warnings at issue could reasonably but erroneously conclude that he had only a one-time right to consult with an attorney.

Next, in Maryland v. Shatzer (08-680), the Court considered the effect of a break in custody after a suspect invokes his Miranda rights. In 2003, Shatzer was serving time in prison for a child sexual abuse crime when police sought to interrogate him about a separate allegation of child sexual abuse involving his three year old son. Shatzer invoked his Miranda right to have counsel present, the interrogation was discontinued, Shatzer was released back into the general prison population, and the investigation was closed. Two and a half years later, after Shatzer's son gave additional details to a social worker, another police officer sought to interrogate Shatzer (who was still in prison) about the same incident. The officer gave Shatzer a Miranda warning, Shatzer waived his right to have counsel present, and made incriminating statements to police. At trial, Shatzer argued that his statements should be suppressed under Edwards v. Arizona (1981), which held that once a suspect invoked his right to have counsel present during interrogation, additional interrogation could not take place without counsel even if the suspect was given another Miranda warning. Edwards' prophylactic rule was established to prevent suspects in prolonged pretrial detention from being badgered by police into waiving their right to counsel. The trial court concluded that Edwards did not apply here, given the prolonged break in Miranda custody between the first and second interrogations of Shatzer, but the Court of Appeals of Maryland reversed.

The Court accepted cert, and reversed right back, in an opinion by Justice Scalia. As the Court explained, Edwards was a judicially-created prophylactic rule (not required by the Constitution), which is designed to protect a defendant's Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination. As such, the Court must define the proper scope of the rule, balancing the need to prevent involuntary confessions from being admitted against the positive benefit of encouraging confessions that are voluntary. The Edwards rule was created to protect against the coercive effect of being in pretrial custody, subject to ongoing badgering by police, where a suspect might feel compelled to waive Miranda rights even after initially invoking them. Where there has been a break in custody sufficient to dissipate its coercive effects, however, a confession should not be presumed involuntary and subject to suppression under Edwards. The Court next to turned to the question of how long of a break in custody is sufficient, concluding that 14 days "provides plenty of time for the suspect to get reacclimated to his normal life, to consult with friends and counsel, and to shake off any residual coercive effects of his prior custody." While the Court noted that adopting a specific time period was a bit of an oddity, it did so to provide clear guidance to police officers and courts. Shatzer's case presented yet a third question – whether his return to the general prison population constituted a break in custody at all. The Court concluded that it did, since Shatzer returned to his baseline life prior to interrogation, a life that his interrogatories did not control. While Shatzer was certainly in the custody of the state, this was not the type of custody at which Edwards was aimed. So, Shatzer's confession comes in.

Justice Thomas concurred in part and in the judgment. He wasn't sure he agreed with Edwards even in the custodial context and certainly didn't agree with extending it after custody has ended. Justice Stevens concurred only in the judgment. In his view, Edwards was aimed at protecting the suspect from feeling lied to by the state and thus believing that the right to an attorney was illusory (I.e., I asked for a lawyer last time they interrogated me, and now they're interrogating me again without one. They must not really intend to give me a lawyer.) However, even Stevens felt that two and a half years was sufficient to eliminate this issue. So, that makes a 9-0 ruling against Shatzer, just not unanimity.

The Court also issued two per curiam opinions. In Wilkins v. Gaddy (08-10914), the Court reiterated that courts must evaluate prisoners' excessive force claims based on the nature of the force, rather than the extent of the injury. The Court previously held, in Hudson v. McMillian, that the use of excessive physical force could constitute cruel and unusual punishment even when the inmate did not suffer serious injury – the key question was "whether force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm." Here, prisoner Wilkins filed a pro se § 1983 suit alleging that corrections officer Gaddy assaulted him without any provocation, causing him to suffer various physical and mental ailments. Following Fourth Circuit precedent, the District Court dismissed the complaint sua sponte, then denied reconsideration, on the ground that Wilkins had failed to allege more than a de minimis injury. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Court reversed, stating that the Fourth Circuit had "strayed far from the clear holding" of Hudson. While the extent of a prisoner's injuries may be probative of the level of force and whether such force was necessary, the injuries cannot be the deciding factor in an excessive force claim. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, wrote a separate opinion concurring in the judgment to express his continued belief that Hudson was wrongly decided. In Justice Thomas' view, the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment should not have been extended to prison conditions, much less to those not involving serious injury. However, since no party asked the Court to reconsider Hudson, he concurred in the judgment.

Under Batson v. Kentucky, a prosecutor may not exercise a peremptory challenge against a potential juror on the basis of race; if the defendant objects and makes out a prima facie case of discrimination, the prosecutor must provide a race-neutral explanation for excluding the juror. The question presented in Thaler v. Cardell Haynes (09-273) was whether, for purposes of habeas relief, Supreme Court precedent "clearly establishes" that a judge who did not personally observe and recall a prospective juror's demeanor must reject a demeanor-based explanation for excluding the juror. In this capital case, one judge presided over jury voir dire, and another judge took over when peremptory challenges were exercised. When the defendant raised a Batson objection to the prosecutor's strike of an African-American juror, the prosecutor's proffered explanation was that the juror did not exhibit a sufficiently serious demeanor during voir dire. Even though he had not been present during voir dire, the second judge accepted the prosecutor's explanation. The defendant was subsequently convicted and sentenced to death. The Texas Court of Criminal appeals affirmed, rejecting the defendant's argument that a trial judge who did not witness the voir dire cannot fairly evaluate a Batson challenge. The defendant's subsequent habeas petition was denied by the district court. The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding that Supreme Court precedent clearly supported the defendant's position. The Court did not agree, unanimously holding that nothing in Batson or a later decision precluded judges who did not personally recall a juror's demeanor from accepting a prosecutor's demeanor-based explanation for a peremptory challenge. The Court did not completely close the door to defendant's Batson challenge, however. On remand, the Fifth Circuit could consider whether the state court's decision might nevertheless be overcome under the habeas statute's deferential standard for reviewing state courts' factual determinations – a tough burden to meet.

Finally, the Court granted cert in two cases:

Harrington v. Richter (09-587), which presented the following question for review: "In granting habeas corpus relief to a state prisoner, did the Ninth Circuit deny the state court judgment the deference mandated by [the AEDPA,] 28 U.S.C. section 2254(d), and impermissibly enlarge the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel by elevating the value of expert-opinion testimony in a manner that would virtually always require defense counsel to produce such testimony rather than allowing him to rely instead on cross-examination or other methods designed to create reasonable doubt about the defendant's guilt?" The Court sua sponte added a second question: "Does AEDPA deference apply to a state court's summary disposition of a claim, including a claim under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)?"

Los Angeles County v. Humphries (09-350), where the Court will determine whether "claims for declaratory relief against a local public entity [are] subject to the requirement of Mondell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978) that the plaintiff demonstrate that the constitutional violation was the result of a policy, custom or practice attributable to the local public entity . . . .?"

With that, the Court is probably done for the week. As always, I'll be back with more decision and orders as they arrive!


From the Appellate and Complex Legal Issues Practice Group at Wiggin and Dana
For more information, contact Kim Rinehart or any other member of the Practice Group at 203-498-4400