A new SCOTUS term and a week of Scalia

Chief Justice John Roberts opened the term Monday with a salute to Scalia on the 25th anniversary of his appointment. “The place has not been the same since,” Roberts said. (See story)
And as the week went on, it was all Scalia all the time. During three days of oral arguments, he cracked wise and showed himself, as often happens, particularly skeptical of claims (story) by a Death Row defendant and of lawyers’ arguments (story) in a church- state controversy.
Tuesday’s case of condemned prisoner Cory Maples, who was blocked from an appeal because of a missed deadline that was no fault of his own, drew sympathetic comments from a majority of the justices. Maples’ lawyers had left their firm without telling him, and when a court clerk sent relevant appeal papers to their office, the firm’s mailroom returned them unopened.
Expressing no surprise or outrage at the misconduct, Scalia took more of a “get over it” stance. He asked whether sanctions ever fall on lawyers deemed “inadequate” in a death penalty case: “Have you ever heard of anything happening to them? Other than they are getting another capital case?”
Then on Wednesday afternoon, in testimony with Justice Stephen Breyer before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Scalia got off another set of caustic lines and drew most attention (story): “I’m hopeful that the ‘living’ Constitution will die,” he said, referring to Breyer’s view that the Constitution should be broadly interpreted to adapt to changing times.
Scalia brushed off questions related to public complaints about a dysfunctional Washington and legislative gridlock. He said it should be difficult to pass legislation that may not be embraced by a majority. “Americans should appreciate that,” Scalia said. “They should learn to love the gridlock.”
And so it goes, 25 years and counting.

A Justice’s Life as Prism for a Larger World

This weekend when I was clearing out book shelves, trying to make room for new volumes, I discovered a little book about Arizona’s distinctive state Capitol and copper dome. I had bought it years ago when I was researching Sandra Day O’Connor. I believed her tenure as a state senator in the 1970s was critical to understanding the justice who so skillfully counted votes among the brethren, and I had gathered all I could find about Arizona state politics and the legislature during her time there. I somehow found even the architecture of the Capitol intriguing.

Road Trip! What Reporters Still Live For

When I started in this business ages ago, it wasn’t unusual to hear a reporter say, “I can’t believe I get paid for this.” This was in the days when most of us – even law and government reporters — were regularly on the road, visiting the scene of the crime, so-to-speak, covering live events, traveling with officials, talking to real people. News organizations don’t have the money they had for travel, and the time pressures of filing for the Web make it impossible to linger anywhere.

Justice John Paul Stevens: Still Dissenting

Add another critic to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Connick v. Thompson: Retired Justice Stevens on Monday night denounced his old colleagues for ruling that a former Louisiana Death Row inmate could not sue prosecutors who had concealed blood evidence that might have shown his innocence.

In that 5-4 case in late March, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the conservative majority and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for liberal dissenters. (I referred in an earlier post to Ginsburg’s passionate dissent from the bench in the case focused on prosecutors’ duty to turn over exculpatory evidence.)

Justice Antonin Scalia and the Many Pretenders

I got a message last week that said: “Antonin Scalia is now following you on Twitter!” Despite our many years of interaction, I suspected this Scalia wasn’t the real one. I know he has an iPad and is pretty digital for a 75-year-old who works in the cloister of the Marble Palace. But he’s no Justice Stephen Breyer, who has a Twitter account –although Breyer does call it the “tweeter thing”.

At SCOTUS, Thomas v. Sotomayor: Dueling Over a Convict’s Bad Childhood

The Supreme Court decided a little reported dispute this week involving a California prisoner’s claim of deficient legal representation. It revealed justices’ competing views of when a state prisoner merits a federal hearing and how bad a childhood might have to be to make a difference in a death sentence.

By a 5-4 vote, the Court ruled against Scott Pinholster, convicted in 1984 of the brutal murders of two men, and reinstated the death sentence a lower U.S. appeals court had set aside. The issue was whether Pinholster’s trial lawyers had wrongly neglected to investigate his troubled childhood and psychiatric problems that, if related to the jury, might have gotten him a life sentence, rather than death.

A Defining 48 Hours at the Supreme Court

Sitting in the courtroom the last two days, I was reminded of how profoundly the Court is split 5-4, conservatives-liberals, on cases that really matter. The divide was evident during oral arguments in the Arizona campaign finance dispute Monday and in the gigantic Wal-Mart job-discrimination class action fight Tuesday. And one of most compelling moments along these lines came Tuesday morning when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read aloud her dissenting opinion from a decision in which the five-justice conservative majority ruled that a former Louisiana Death Row could not sue prosecutors who had failed to turn over blood evidence that could have shown his innocence.

Confrontational Scalia on the Confrontation Clause

Justice Scalia lost it Monday in Michigan v. Bryant. As the majority ruled that a gunshot victim’s dying words to police could be used at trial against the alleged shooter, Scalia erupted. “[T]oday’s decision is not only a gross distortion of the facts. It is a gross distortion of the law—a revisionist narrative … at least where emergencies and faux emergencies are concerned.”

The majority opinion, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said the victim’s statements identifying defendant Richard Perry Bryant – as the victim bled in a gas station parking lot — were made in an emergency situation and not “testimonial.” So allowing them at trial did not violate the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause, which guarantees that a defendant may confront his accuser.