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Three from SCOTUS

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So for weeks I don't have any Supreme Court decisions to talk about, which is sort of like being a baseball writer in January.  But spring training has started, so you can begin your day by reading about how well the Indians are going to manage with one of the best defensive outfields in baseball but one in which the three players may not hit double figures in home runs -- combined -- or whether the Reds idea of making newly-acquired Shin Soo Choo their regular centerfielder is a good idea, considering that he's played the position exactly once since 2006.  And then you can come here and find out what Breyer thinks about plain error, or how Teague v. Lane prevents non-citizen defendants who weren't properly advised of the immigration consequences of their plea and whose convictions have become final from making ineffective assistance claims under Padilla v. Kentucky.

Frankly, I find the Choo question more interesting; I'm not sure of his fielding ability, but the guy can swing the stick; his OPS+ is about the same as Josh Hamilton's over the past two years. But reading legal cases and explaining them is what you guys pay me the big bucks to do, so let's get to it.

If Supreme Court cases were songs, Evans v. Michigan would be "With a Little Help from my Friends."  Evans' friend turned out to be the judge; at the close of Evans' arson trial, the judge entered a directed verdict of acquittal because, in his view, the state hadn't proved a particular element.  Turns out the element wasn't required at all, and the Michigan court reversed and remanded for a new trial.  No, you don't, said the Supreme Court in an 8-1 decision:  an acquittal creates a double jeopardy bar to retrial, even if it's premised on an erroneous ruling by the trial court.  The key here is distinguishing between procedural rulings that might terminate a case, like declaring a mistrial because of the State's discovery violation, and an acquittal, which is substantive, even if it is based on something like an erroneous decision to exclude evidence.  A little twist here:  under Ohio law, a judgment of acquittal under CrimR 29(C), which allows the judge to override a jury's guilty verdict and acquit the defendant, also creates a double jeopardy bar and isn't appealable.  That's not true of acquittals in Federal court under the similar Rule 29(c); the Supreme Court has held that appeal and reversal of the judge's ruling isn't barred by double jeopardy, because if the appeal is successful, all that happens is that the jury's verdict is reinstated.

If Supreme Court cases were books, Johnson v. Williams would be sequel number 37, where you'd know the ending as soon as you opened the first page; the case demonstrates (again) why it's so hard to win habeas claims.  As any appellate lawyer can tell you, the more deferential the standard of review, the more likely the lower court decision will be affirmed.  Back in 1996 Congress passed a law tightening up habeas review; among other things, it provided that once a state court had addressed a federal claim (like ineffective assistance of counsel) on the merits, the federal court couldn't grant habeas unless the state court decision was contrary establish US Supreme Court, or it had made an "unreasonable determination of the facts."  (And don't even get me started on what a defendant has to do to show the state court's determination is "unreasonable.")

Of course, if the state court doesn't address the federal question on the merits, then its decision on that isn't due any deference, and the federal courts review it de novo.  That's what Williams claimed; the state court had rejected his claim that the judge had erred in kicking off a juror during deliberations, but hadn't specifically addressed the federal aspect of that claim.  No matter, says a unanimous court.  Last year in Harrington v. Richter the court held that where the state court rejects a defendant's claim without any discussion, the defendant has to rebut the presumption that the federal claim was in fact adjudicated on the merits.  The Williams Court decides that if complete silence merits a presumption, so does silence on the federal issue.

There's some merit to the argument -- in many cases, such as ineffective assistance, the state law is based on federal law, so discussion of one solves the other.  And the presumption is rebuttable; for example, say, if the state court had addressed only a state claim that the judge had abused his discretion in removing the juror, it would be hard to argue that the state court had made a merits determination of the federal claim.  But the main lesson here for practitioners is not to take up habeas work if you've self-esteem issues.

If Supreme Court cases were movies, Henderson v. US would be some Swedish flick where two people sit in a room and talk about their feelings for an hour and fifty minutes.  BOOO-ring; all that's missing is sub-titles.  Henderson holds that in determining plain error, an error is "plain" if it's plain at the time of appellate review, even if that's because of an appellate or Supreme Court ruling that was made after the trial proceedings.  In short, an error is "plain" even if it wasn't at the time the trial court made its ruling.  The only interesting thing about the case is why Scalia felt compelled to write a ten-page dissent.  In any event, this issue might come up once in your legal career, but if it does, you'll know the answer to it.  And you'll also know what OPS+ is.  Not bad for a morning's work, huh?


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