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As Supremes return, lower courts still weigh issue of life for juveniles (access required)

Today the justices of the Supreme Court return to the bench to hear oral arguments. Also look for the Court to release orders from its Friday conference today. We’ll update you on any newsworthy developments later today.

Meanwhile, courts around the country are dealing with the impact of a Supreme Court decision from last term: Graham v. Florida, which held that life without parole is an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment for a juvenile convicted of a crime less than murder.

Not only has the ruling caused courts to give new sentences to the 150 or so inmates directly covered by the ruling, it had also lead to a host of petitions from some of the roughly 2,500 prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles – including murder, reports the Wall Street Journal.

“Judges will fear that if they let someone out, he may commit another crime,” Bryan Gowdy, one of the winning lawyers in the Graham case, told the Journal. “But judges need to respect the constitutional right of juvenile offenders to have a meaningful opportunity at being released from prison.”

But prosecutors say there is no need to extend the Graham ruling to murder cases. “There are millions of young kids who do not commit outrageous crimes,” said Scott Burns, the head of the National District Attorneys Association. “To say we can excuse a small percentage who do just because their frontal lobe hasn’t developed is not persuasive.”

Breyer: Courts need better PR

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is worried that the judicial branch is suffering a public relations crisis.

The public doesn’t understand impartiality of judges and the importance of judicial independence, Breyer said at a speech honoring the 150th anniversary of Massachusetts’ trial court system Tuesday night.

“Judicial independence means something to a judge,” Breyer said at the event in Boston, Legal Blog Watch reports. “But to someone who is not a judge or a lawyer, it is hard to convince them of what you are talking about.”

He urged the judges and lawyers at the gathering to support efforts to educate the public about the role of the courts and the people who run them. “You know whether you’re deciding [a case] fairly, but don’t expect anyone else to,” Breyer said.

O’Connor takes reform message to W.Va.

First the issue of West Virginia’s judicial elections process went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Now a former justice of the nation’s highest court is going all the way to West Virginia to take on the issue.

Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor went to the mining state to urge a change in the way the judges on the state’s appellate court are selected. O’Connor, a vocal opponent of partisan judicial elections, urged state officials to follow the lead of her home state of Arizona in reforming the judicial process.

“It’s just been an excellent system,” she said of Arizona, where a commission now recommends judges to the governor for appointment. “I think we have as good a bench in the state today, as anywhere in the nation.”

O’Connor spoke at the second of three public hearings on potential changes to West Virginia’s judicial selection process, according to WVPB. That process was the subject of national attention when the U.S. Supreme Court took up the case this year in Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., which involved a West Virginia appellate judge who cast the deciding vote overturning a $50 million verdict against a company.

The judge’s ruling came after the company’s CEO gave $3 million in direct and indirect contributions to the judge’s election campaign. That amount was more than half the total spent in the campaign.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the judge’s failure to recuse himself violated the Due Process Clause.

Friday morning docket: Club Med-mal

Yesterday the White House gave us a few more details about the administration’s proposed state-level medical malpractice reform demonstration programs. People are reacting, but no one on either side of the debate seems particularly excited about it.

American Association of Justice President Anthony Tarricone said the programs could hurt victims of medical negligence. “Forty-six states have already enacted tort reform and health care costs continue to hurt the pocketbooks of American families,” he said in a statement yesterday.  “Because of these tort reforms, patients injured through no fault of their own are often unable to seek justice.”

The Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform, which was strongly pushed for the health care reform package to include some tort reform measure such as health courts, also doesn’t like the plan all that much. “While we are encouraged that the Obama Administration has made medical liability reform part of their overall health care package, the $25 million state grant program announced today amounts to about 1-40,000th of one percent of the cost of a one trillion dollar health care bill,” said Lisa A. Rickard, ILR’s president. “Studies have shown that meaningful medical malpractice reform can save from $120 billion to as much as $500 billion over a decade. But a small medical liability grant program will not be effective, and will preserve the status quo when it comes to medical malpractice lawsuits.”

Meanwhile, one potential method of med-mal reform – requiring a malpractice lawsuits to be accompanied by a certificate of merit by a medical professional – was thrown out in one state yesterday. The Washington Supreme Court held that the requirement impedes access to the courts and violates the state constitution’s separation of powers clause.

In other news,

Senate’s med-mal plan: Sen. Max Baucus’ health care reform plan contains no concrete tort reform mandates, but the proposal would encourage Congress to “consider establishing a state … program to evaluate alternatives to the current civil litigation system.” (Lawyers USA)

If you don’t do the crime, you don’t have to do the time: Violent crimes in the United States fell in 2008, and so did incarceration rates. The Federal Bureau of Investigation sees a connection there. (Lawyers USA)

One less legal problem for former AG: A federal judge dismissed a civil lawsuit against former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, rejecting job applicants’ claim of being blacklisted from the Bush administration’s Justice Department based on their ideology. (WaPo)

Constitution Day trip. Retired Justice David Souter celebrated Constitution Day – which was also his birthday – talking constitutional law at a Harvard panel. (Harvard Crimson) (See the archived webcast of the event here)

Filling a vacancy: The Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a measure that will allow Gov. Deval Patrick to temporarily fill the seat left vacant by Sen. Edward Kennedy’s death. It could become law as early as next week. (Boston Herald)

Birther defeat: A lawsuit by a vocal leader of a group claiming President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. was thrown out of court this week. (KCAL, CBS News)

Less money, more problems: A federal judge in California is resigning to go into private practice, saying his judicial salary is too low to let him support his seven children. The move draws attention to an issue that has been a priority for Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., who has urged an increase in judicial salaries each year since being seated on the High Court. (Reuters)

State courts mull post-Caperton recusal rule changes

Lawyers expected that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co. would lead to more judge recusals where conflicts of interest are apparent. Now the head of Ohio’s state judiciary is calling for a review of recusal rules for elected judges in the state.

Ohio Chief Justice Thomas Moyer will call for a new policy addressing what judges must do when cases involving campaign donors come before them. He plans to discuss the issue with his justice colleagues, and then hold a conference later this year to consider judicial reforms, a court spokesman told The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“This clearly offers an opportunity to reinvigorate the discussion of judicial reform in Ohio,” court spokesman Chris Davey told the Plain Dealer on Moyer’s behalf.

As Lawyers USA reported, in some states, including Michigan and Wisconsin, courts have already begun reviewing their recusal policies and considering proposals to tighten the standard for when a judge must remove him or herself from a case.

High court: Judge can’t rule in hefty campaign donor’s case

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a judge’s refusal to recuse himself from hearing an appeal involving a party who contributed millions to the judge’s election campaign was unconstitutional. The decision in Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co. has wide-ranging implications, given that judges in a vast majority of states are elected.

In a 5-4 ruling authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court held that actual bias need not be proven.

“The difficulties of inquiring into actual bias, and the fact that the inquiry is often a private one, simply underscore the need for objective rules,” Kennedy wrote. “Otherwise there may be no adequate protection against a judge who simply misreads or misapprehends the real motives at work in deciding the case. The judge’s own inquiry into actual bias, then, is not one that the law can easily superintend or review, though actual bias, if disclosed, no doubt would be grounds for appropriate relief. In lieu of exclusive reliance on that personal inquiry, or on appellate review of the judge’s determination respecting actual bias, the Due Process Clause has been implemented by objective standards that do not require proof of actual bias.”

The Court also handed down opinions in Boyle v. United States, United States ex rel. Eisenstein v. City of New York, United States v. Denedo, and Republic of Iraq v. Beaty.

More later on this blog and on LawyersUSAOnline.com.

Monday status conference: Supreme challenge to Chrysler sale

It’s only Monday morning, but it has already been a busy week at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Several parties filed emergency papers over the weekend asking the Supreme Court to delay the sale of much of Chrysler’s assets to Italian automaker Fiat. (AP) One of the parties is a woman who sued Chrysler in state court claiming her husband’s death was caused by his exposure to asbestos while working at a Chrysler plant. The sale would prevent her recovery, she argued (SCOTUSBlog). Those defending the sale have been filing their responses which you can find here on SCOTUSBlog.

In addition to considering the stay petitions, the Court today could add more cases to its docket for next term as well as hand down decisions in some of the host of cases still pending. Stay tuned for newsworthy updates.


Didn’t get the memo: Critics of Judge Sonia Sotomayor seized Friday on her failure to include a 1981 memo opposing the death penalty in her response to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s questionnaire. (WSJ)

A tale of two jurists: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and high court nominee Sonia Sotomayor have more in common than you may think. Yet, their take on a number of topics – including race – are strongly divergent. (NYT)

Can’t find them in the club: Two private clubs have lost the honor of naming Supreme Court justices among their members, thanks to a 2008 law barring judges from accepting free club memberships valued above $50. (BLT)

Opening up: A new task force is seeking recommendations from the public on how to make the Food and Drug Administration more transparent in its operations and decision-making processes. (Lawyers USA)

Military med-mal: A bill that would give service members on active duty the right to sue the U.S. for damages for non-combat related injuries has advanced in the House. (Lawyers USA)

Supreme Tuesday

Today the U.S. Supreme Court is set to release opinions and orders. Some of the cases still awaiting a decision from the high court include Safford Unified School District v. Redding, which asks whether the Fourth Amendment allows students to be strip searched by school officials in search of prescription drugs, Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, which considers whether lab reports prepared in criminal drug cases are testimonial evidence triggering the Confrontation Clause, and Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., which asks whether a judge must recuse himself from an appeal involving one of his campaign donors.

Also this week, President Barack Obama could end the growing speculation over who his first Supreme Court pick will be by announcing the nominee.

And legal watchers in Washington and across the country are watching the California Supreme Court, which will decide the fate of Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage today.

Updates to come here and on Lawyers USA‘s website.

Supremes reject brief in Massey case

scawvToday the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a supplemental brief lawyers for A.T. Massey Coal Company attempted to file in the case Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co. In that case the Court is set to decide whether the failure of a judge to recuse himself from a case involving a campaign contributor violates the Due Process Clause.

In the brief, lawyers from the company sought to bring to the Court’s attention a press release from the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which showed data indicating that the judge in question, Justice Brent Benjamin, ruled against Massey in almost 82 percent of the matters brought before the court.

“According to information which was in the file or which was referenced in local news reports, all votes by Chief Justice Benjamin represented votes against the financial interests of Massey Energy of approximately $317 million,” the press release reads.

The Court did not indicate why the brief was rejected.


High court drama on tap

If you are going to be inside the U.S. Supreme Court building this morning, there is no doubt that you are in for a legal treat. Today the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in one of the most anticipated cases of the term: Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co.

The facts of the case alone are compelling enough to draw a crowd: company gets hit with massive jury verdict, company almost wholly finances the multi-million-dollar campaign of an appellate judge, and once the judge is elected, then the company appeals.

If the justices’ questions about whether such a judge violates due process by refusing to recuse himself from his donor’s case are as lively as they were in yesterday’s DNA evidence case, today’s argument promises to be among the term’s most interesting.

freyolsonAdd the fact that the attorneys on either side of the case present a virtual legal Battle of the Titans: on one side, learned high court litigator Andy Frey from Mayer Brown; on the other, Supreme Court specialist Ted Olson from Gibson Dunn.

Today the court will be filled with everyone from reporters covering the case to students who have been studying the matter (including Prof. George Cochran‘s constitutional law class, which came all the way from the University of Mississippi School of law. DC Dicta had the pleasure of chatting with Prof. Cochran and the students about the case and the Court this past weekend.)

We’ve been watching this case since before certiorari was granted, and we’ll be there today, so stay tuned.