Supreme Court Review-Preview-Overview

An up-to-date outline of Supreme Court criminal cases
is available here. It covers pending cert grants and decisions from the past and current Terms. Other "cites" of interest are available here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Medellin v. Texas: States' Rights Trump International Law

In the Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mex. v. U.S.), I.C.J. No. 128 Judgment of Mar. 31, 2004), the International Court of Justice determined that 51 named Mexican nationals, including petitioner, were entitled to receive review and reconsideration of their convictions and sentences through the judicial process in the United States without regard for procedural defaults. Petitioner filed a state habeas case challenging his capital conviction, claiming he was not informed of his Vienna Convention right to notify the Mexican consulate. Medellin had not timely raised and preserved the claim in state court so it was procedurally defaulted. While the applicability of Avena to Texas courts was pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, President George W. Bush determined that the United States would comply with its international obligation to give effect to the judgment by giving those 51 individuals review and reconsideration in the state courts. As a result, the Supreme Court case was deemed moot. Medellin filed another habeas petition in state court, relying on both Avena and the President’s decree. In response, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that the President’s determination exceeded his powers, and it refused to give effect to the Avena judgment or the President’s determination. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed dismissal of the habeas petition, holding that neither an International Court of Justice case, nor a memorandum issued by the President of the United States constitutes directly enforceable federal law that preempts state limitations on the filing of successive habeas petitions.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Snyder v. Louisiana - Successful Batson Challenge

Allen Snyder, a black man, was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, for the fatal stabbing of his wife’s male companion. Prior to trial, the prosecutor reported to the media that this was his “O.J. Simpson case.” At trial, the prosecutor peremptorily struck all five African-Americans who had survived cause challenges and then, over objection, urged the resulting all-white jury to impose death because this case was like the O.J. Simpson case, where the defendant “got away with it.” On initial review, a majority of the Louisiana Supreme Court ignored probative evidence of discriminatory intent, including the prosecutor’s O.J. Simpson remarks and argument, and denied Mr. Snyder’s Batson claims by a 5-2 vote. The U.S. Supreme Court then directed the Louisiana court to reconsider Mr. Snyder’s Batson claims in light of Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005). See Snyder v. Louisiana, 545 U.S. 1137 (2005). On remand, a bare majority adhered to its prior holding, once again disregarding substantial evidence establishing discriminatory intent, including the prosecutor’s references to the O.J. Simpson case, the totality of strikes against African-American jurors, and evidence showing a pattern of practice of race-based peremptory challenges by the prosecutor’s office. In addition, the majority imposed a new and higher burden on Mr. Snyder, asserting that Rice v. Collins, 546 U.S. 333 (2006), permitted reversal only if “a reasonable factfinder [would] necessarily conclude the prosecutor lied” about the reasons for his strikes. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, relying entirely on one Batson violation, never mentioning the O.J. Simpson race card played by the prosecutor. Writing for a 7-2 majority, Justice Alito reiterated the three-part process for ruling on a Batson objection, then refined the test by adding a clear-error standard of appellate review, and then explained how that review applies in this case. Important principles result from this decision. The three-part test remains: (1) defendant must make a prima facie owing that a peremptory strike was race-based; (2) if so, the prosecutor must a offer race-neutral reason for the challenge; (3) and, in light of these submissions, the trial court must determine if there was purposeful discrimination. The Court clarified that the standard of appellate review of the trial court’s ruling is “clearly erroneous,” but the Court also made clear that an appealing defendant wins if he can show just one race-based challenge that should have been upheld under Batson. In determining if the challenge should be sustained, a trial judge considers the demeanor and credibility of the prosecutor, and an appellate court looks to the record to determine if the prosecutor’s excuse is supported. Here, the reasons given–the juror
was a student teacher who could not miss class for the week of trial, and he acted nervous during questioning–were not supported by the record. The judge’s law clerk had called the prospective juror’s college dean, who said the student teaching could be satisfied even if he missed one week while serving on the jury. The record revealed that the judge made no finding on the nervousness concern. And the record revealed that the prosecutor did not strike other prospective jurors who are white, even though they expressed similar concerns about missing work due to jury service. Having found the prosecutor’s proffered excuses to be implausible, in light of the record, the Court held that equates to purposeful discrimination under Batson. Finally, the Court noted that it does not apply to Batson appeals the causation rule applicable in many other instances that once discriminatory intent is shown, the burden shifts to the defending party to show that the factor was not determinative. In this case, in particular, remand for examination of causation could not be “profitably” explored more than a decade later. As a result, the Court reversed the judgment with no opportunity for further appellate review by the state court.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Boulware v. United States - Return of Capital Defense to Tax Evasion

Boulware was charged with criminal tax evasion and filing a false income tax return for diverting funds from a closely held corporation, of which he was the president, founder, and controlling shareholder. One element of tax evasion under 26 U. S. C. §7201 is “the existence of a tax deficiency.” Sansone v. United States, 380 U. S. 343. To support his argument that the government could not establish the tax deficiency required to convict him, Boulware sought to introduce evidence that the corporation had no earnings and profits in the relevant taxable years, so he in effect received distributions of property that were returns of capital, up to his basis in his stock, which are not taxable. See 26 U. S. C. §§ 301 and 316(a). Under §301(a), unless the Internal Revenue Code requires otherwise, a “distribution of property” “made by a corporation to a shareholder with respect to its stock shall be treated in the manner provided in [§301(c)].” Section 301(c) provides that the portion of the distribution that is a “dividend,” as defined by §316(a), must be included in the recipient’s gross income; and the portion that is not a dividend is, depending on the shareholder’s basis for his stock, either a nontaxable return of capital or a taxable capital gain. Section 316(a) defines “dividend” as a “distribution” out of “earnings and profits.” The District Court granted the government’s in limine motion to bar evidence supporting Boulware’s return-of-capital theory, relying on Ninth Circuit’s precedent holding that a diversion of funds in a criminal tax evasion case may be deemed a return of capital only if the taxpayer or corporation demonstrates that the distributions were intended to be such a return. The court later found Boulware’s proffer of evidence insufficient and declined to instruct the jury on his theory. Affirming his conviction, the Ninth Circuit held that Boulware’s proffer was properly rejected because he offered no proof that the amounts diverted were intended as a return of capital when they were made. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that a distributee accused of criminal tax evasion may claim return-of-capital treatment without producing evidence that, when the distribution occurred, either he or the corporation intended a return of capital.