Supreme Court finds no constitutional right to post-conviction DNA evidence testing

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] issued opinions in four cases Thursday. The Court ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 in District Attorney's Office v. Osborne [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a defendant does not have the right to obtain post-conviction access to the state’s biological evidence in order to do DNA testing. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled [opinion, PDF] that Osborne had a right to access the evidence against him on appeal, under Section 1983 [text] and the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process clause, even though his lawyer made a strategic decision to forgo independent DNA analysis for the trial. In reversing the opinion below, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:

DNA testing has an unparalleled ability both to exonerate the wrongly convicted and to identify the guilty. It has the potential to significantly improve both the criminal justice system and police investigative practices. The Federal Government and the States have recognized this, and have developed special approaches to ensure that this evidentiary tool can be effectively incorporated into established criminal procedure — usually but not always through legislation.

Against this prompt and considered response, the respondent, William Osborne, proposes a different approach: the recognition of a freestanding and far-reaching constitutional right of access to this new type of evidence. The nature of what he seeks is confirmed by his decision to file this lawsuit in federal court under 42 USC § 1983, not within the state criminal justice system. This approach would take the development of rules and procedures in this area out of the hands of legislatures and state courts shaping policy in a focused manner and turn it over to federal courts applying the broad parameters of the Due Process Clause. There is no reason to constitutionalize the issue in this way.
Justice John Paul Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, and joined in part by Justice David Souter. Souter also filed a separate dissenting opinion.

The Court ruled [opinion, PDF] 6-3 in Yeager v. United States [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a criminal defendant cannot face new prosecution for counts on which a jury failed to reach a verdict but that share a common element with other counts of which the defendant has been acquitted. Petitioner F. Scott Yeager was a former Enron [JURIST news archive] executive who was charged with wire fraud, securities fraud, insider trading, money laundering, and conspiracy to engage in securities fraud and wire fraud. A jury acquitted Yeager of the conspiracy, securities fraud, and wire fraud charges, but failed to reach a verdict on the insider trading and money laundering charges. Prosecutors then issued another indictment charging Yeager with money laundering and insider trading. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed [opinion, PDF] the district court's denial of Yeager's motion to dismiss the charges. Stevens wrote the majority opinion, which reversed the opinion below and resolved a circuit split on whether such a prosecution violates the Double Jeopardy Clause [LII backgrounder] of the Fifth Amendment. Justice Antonin Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined. Alito also filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Scalia and Thomas.

The Court ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 in Gross v. FBL Financial Services [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that the burden is on the plaintiff to prove that age was the determining factor in an age discrimination in employment suit and that a mixed-motive jury instruction is never appropriate in such a case. The case involves an executive, Jack Gross, who claims he was passed over for a promotion at FBL Financial Services [corporate website] in favor of a younger employee in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) [text]. The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] in May 2008 that if a plaintiff presents direct evidence in ADEA case, the jury can be given a mix-motive instruction. In vacating that ruling, Thomas wrote:
We hold that a plaintiff bringing a disparate-treatment claim pursuant to the ADEA must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that age was the "but-for" cause of the challenged adverse employment action. The burden of persuasion does not shift to the employer to show that it would have taken the action regardless of age, even when a plaintiff has produced some evidence that age was one motivating factor in that decision.
Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer. Breyer also filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Souter and Ginsburg.

The Court ruled [opinion, PDF] 7-2 in Travelers Indemnity v. Bailey [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a bankruptcy court has jurisdiction to approve a third-party injunction provision in a plan of reorganization or related confirmation order. The cases arise from the bankruptcy of asbestos manufacturer Johns-Manville Corp. [corporate website]. The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2004 held [opinion, PDF] that a bankruptcy court lacked that jurisdiction. Overturning that decision in a "narrow ruling," Souter wrote, "[w]e hold that the terms of the injunction bar the actions and that the finality of the Bankruptcy Court’s orders following the conclusion of direct review generally stands in the way of challenging the enforceability of the injunction." Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Ginsburg.

 

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