In a divided ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a $14 million verdict awarded to a man who was wrongfully-convicted of murder and sent to death row because a prosecutor in his case withheld exculpatory evidence.
In Connick v. Thompson, the Court held in a 5-4 ruling that a district attorney’s office cannot be liable under §1983 for failing to train its prosecutors where only a single Brady violation is shown.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in announcing the opinion, said “under our precedent, a plaintiff seeking to hold [a district attorney's office] liable for failure to train must show deliberate indifference.”
Because prosecutors in the district attorney’s office are all law school graduates who have passed the bar exam, they should be expected to know what a Brady violation is, and therefore John Thompson failed to make the necessary showing, Thomas reasoned in his first majority opinion of the term.
“Prosecutors are ethically required to know Brady,” Thomas said in Court today. “A district attorney is not deliberately indifferent when he relies on prosecutors’ training.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was joined in dissent by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, took the unusual step of announcing her dissent from the bench – a move she has said is designed “to get immediate public attention.”
Noting that Thompson “spent 14 years isolated on death row” and was only weeks away from execution when the hidden exculpatory evidence in the case was found, Ginsburg said she “agree[d] that deliberate indifference is the proper standard.”
“Unlike the Court, I would hold that the abundance of the evidence in this case proves blatant deliberate indifference to Thompson’s civil rights,” Ginsburg said.
In the written dissent, Ginsburg also makes the unusual move of devoting a large amount of ink to the facts in the case. In fact, Ginsburg’s dissent is longer than the majority opinion and a concurrence written by Justice Antonin Scalia combined – a fact that Scalia himself noted in his opinion.
“The dissent’s lengthy excavation of the trial record is a puzzling exertion,” Scalia wrote in his concurrence, adding that the question presented in the case was a legal, not factual.
The Court also held in Astra USA, Inc. v. Santa Clara County that third-party lawsuits to enforce ceiling-price contracts between drug manufacturers and the government cannot be maintained.
The Court also dismissed Tolentino v. New York as improvidently granted. That case would have considered whether motor vehicle records obtained as a direct result of an illegal stop should be excluded from evidence as fruit of the poisonous tree.
More on these cases and today’s oral argument in Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes to come later on this blog and on Lawyers USA online.