Montejo v. Louisiana (07-1529), Haywood v. Drown (07-10374), Abuelhawa v. United States (08-192) and order list

May 28, 2009 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court fans!
President Obama's announcement of Second Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor as his pick to replace Justice Souter overshadowed other news at the Court this week. (For those who want the nitty-gritty on what this appointment might mean for the Court, SCOTUSblog has done a pretty extensive analysis of Judge Sotomayor's decisions, which is available here: The Court did release two criminal decisions this week (one biggie), as well as a civil decision addressing whether state courts can adopt rules that operate to forbid § 1983 suits for damages in state courts.
The most controversial decision came in Montejo v. Louisiana (07-1529), where the Court, in a 5-4 decision, overruled Michigan v. Jackson (1986), which had forbidden police from initiating any interrogation of a criminal defendant once he requested appointment of counsel at a preliminary hearing. Jesse Montejo was arrested, waived his Miranda rights, was interrogated by police, and confessed to murder. At a preliminary hearing a few days later, the court – without a specific request from Montejo – appointed counsel. Later that day, after police again read Montejo his Miranda rights, he accompanied them on a search for the murder weapon, during which he wrote a letter of apology to the victim's widow. That letter was admitted at trial and Montejo was convicted. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed Montejo's conviction, reasoning that Jackson's prophylactic bar on police interrogation did not apply here because Montejo never requested counsel – he simply "stood mute" while one was appointed to him. The only issue was thus whether Montejo knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to have counsel present at the interrogation, and the court found that he had in light of the Miranda warning.
Justice Scalia, writing for the majority (which included the Chief, Alito, Thomas and Kennedy), rejected the Louisiana Supreme Court's interpretation of Jackson because it would lead to an "unworkable standard" (i.e., it would be hard to determine whether a defendant requested or consented to the appointment of counsel as opposed to simply having counsel appointed) and because it would lead to "anomalous distinctions between defendants in different states" (i.e., in states where defendants are informed of the right to counsel and then must formally request appointment of counsel, defendants likely would get the benefits of Jackson, while defendants in states that automatically appoint counsel probably wouldn't). However, the Court also couldn't abide by a reading of Jackson that barred interrogation even where a criminal defendant didn't request counsel because the whole point of the prophylactic rule in Jackson was to ensure that criminal defendants weren't badgered into waiving their Sixth Amendment right to counsel. If a defendant never invoked the right to counsel in the first place, there was no reason to assume that a later waiver was coerced. The Court thus opted to reconsider the viability of the Jackson rule – and overturned it. Considerations of stare decisis did not require maintaining the decision because (1) it had proven unworkable, (2) was "only two decades old," (3) eliminating it would not upset any reliance interests (since "any criminal defendant learned enough to order his affairs based on the rule announced in Jackson would also be perfectly capable of interacting with the police on his own," and (4) Jackon's reasoning was not strong. On that last consideration, the majority explained that any prophylactic rule must be based on a consideration of the benefits and costs of the rule. Here, the majority suspected that the benefits of Jackson's rule were minimal in light of the other "substantial, overlapping" protections in place. Miranda already requires that a suspect in custodial custody be advised of the right to counsel. Under Edwards v. Arizona (1981), once a defendant has invoked his Miranda right, the interrogation must stop and, under Minnick v. Mississippi (1990), no further interrogation can be conducted by police unless the defendant initiates it. The majority found "[t]hese three layers of prophylaxis" sufficient.
Led by Justice Stevens, the dissenters argued that the majority both misinterpreted the rationale behind Jackson and grossly undervalued considerations of stare decisis. According to the dissent, Jackson was not about prohibiting badgering, but about protecting the attorney-client relationship. Further, Jackson provided a bright line rule for determining when interrogations could take place that had stood the test of time. Justice Alito, joined by Kennedy, wrote a concurrence to chastise certain members of the dissent (Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg) for flip-flopping on stare decisis since those Justices had joined the majority in Arizona v. Gant (2009), where the Court effectively overruled New York v. Belton (1981) – a case Alito obviously really cared about. In an opinion thick with sarcasm, Alito wrote: "I can only assume that the dissent thinks that our constitutional precedents are like certain wines, which are most treasured when they are neither too young nor too old, and that Jackson at 23 is in its prime, whereas Belton, had turned brownish and vinegary." Justice Breyer, the only Justice to dissent in both Montejo and Gant, wrote a separate dissent to point out his consistent record on stare decisis.
The Court also split 5-4 in Haywood v. Drown (07-10374), where the Court struck down, as unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause, a New York statute (N.Y. Correct. Law. § 24) that stripped jurisdiction from the New York Supreme Courts over cases brought by prisoners seeking damages from corrections officers, and required that all such cases to be heard only in the New York Court of Claims. Plaintiffs in the Court of Claims are required to comply with a strict 90-day notice requirement, are not entitled to a jury trial, and can not obtain attorneys' fees, punitive damages or injunctive relief. The New York legislature's motive for enacting § 24 was "the belief that damages suits filed by prisoners against state correction officers were by and large frivolous and vexatious."
Justice Stevens led the majority (which included Justices Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kennedy), which found § 24 unconstitutional. Under the Court's Supremacy Clause jurisprudence, a state's refusal to provide its courts with jurisdiction over federal claims can only be sustained if such refusal constitutes a "neutral state rule regarding the administration of courts." While it was undisputed that § 24 treated federal and state claims against corrections officers equally, "the absence of discrimination" against federal claims, while necessary to support a conclusion that § 24 constituted a neutral rule, was not sufficient. "A jurisdictional rule cannot be used as a device to undermine federal law, no matter how evenhanded it may appear." To survive Supremacy Clause analysis, a rule must not only provide equal treatment of both federal and state claims, but it must also be truly jurisdictional, that is, it must "reflect the concerns of power over the person and competence over the subject matter that jurisdictional rules are designed to protect." While § 24 was technically denominated as a jurisdictional rule, it was not truly jurisdictional, in the majority's view, because New York had created "courts of general jurisdiction that routinely sit to hear analogous § 1983 actions." "It is only a particular species of suits—those seeking damages against correction officers – that the State deems inappropriate for its trial courts." And Section 1983 clearly established a federal policy providing for such relief against such officials. Justice Thomas authored the dissenting opinion, in which the Chief and Justices Scalia and Alito joined in part. The dissent would have upheld § 24 because it provided equal treatment of federal and state claims, and because the analysis of its jurisdictional nature should "not turn on its narrowness or on its breadth."
Finally, the Justices found some common ground in Abuelhawa v. United States (08-192), where the Court unanimously concluded that using a telephone to make a misdemeanor drug purchase did not "facilitate" felony drug distribution in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b). Abuelhawa made six phone calls to a drug dealer named Said, during which he arranged to buy cocaine twice. His actual purchases were misdemeanors under federal law and would subject him to two years in prison. But the Government charged him instead with six felony counts under § 843(b), for unlawfully using a communication facility to facilitate Said's felony drug distribution – which would subject Abuelhawa to up to 24 years in prison. The Fourth Circuit agreed with the Government, but the Court did not. In a victory for common sense, the Court, led by Justice Souter, explained that a statute must be read as a whole. Adopting the Government's interpretation would "upend the calibration of punishment set by the legislature," which clearly intended to punish drug purchasers more leniently than drug dealers. This interpretation was consistent with both prior case law and with Congress's choice in 1970 to downgrade mere possession to a misdemeanor.
The Court also granted cert in one case: Merck & Co., Inc. v. Reynolds (08-905), which asks whether "under the ‘inquiry notice' standard applicable to federal securities fraud claims, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until an investor receives evidence of scienter without the benefit of any investigation."
Until next week, thanks, as always, for reading.

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