[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF; briefs] Monday in two cases. In United States v. Navajo Nation [oral arguments transcript, PDF], the Court heard arguments on whether the Court's earlier decision [text] in the case foreclosed a decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit [official website] that the US federal government breached its fiduciary duties in connection with coal leases and is liable to the Navajo Nation for as much as $600 million. The Navajo litigation began in 1993, when the Navajo Nation sued the US government for a violation of the Indian Mineral Leasing Act of 1938 (IMLA) [text], alleging that the Secretary of the Interior breached fiduciary duties to the Nation when he communicated with a mining company with whom the Nation had negotiated a coal mining lease during a pending appeal of the mining company's appeal of a Department of the Interior order confirming the terms of the lease. As a result of those communications, the lease between the Navajo Nation and the mining company was renegotiated at terms substantially less favorable to the Nation than the originally approved lease. The case has a complex procedural history, having been argued in both the US Court of Federal Claims [official website] and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit twice, as well as the Supreme Court. Counsel for the respondent argued:
… [T]he Secretary did owe a duty of candor and disclosure embedded in section (a) [of the IMLA]. That program did not end. That disclosure responsibility did not end. What the measure of damages for that breach of duty is a question that obviously is still open on remand. But the notion that the Secretary can behave the way the Secretary did in this case, which is to know that he was not going to take personal jurisdiction over the final decision, command that no decision be made, leave the Navajo in a state of distress under those circumstances, force them to negotiate with one hand tied behind their back at a minimum, and then handed up an agreement that was half what the fair market value would have been for the quality of coal is an outrage, and the Court ought to allow the damages action to go forward. … I urge the Court to affirm.
In Rivera v. Illinois [oral arguments transcript, PDF], the Court heard arguments on whether an Illinois trial court erred in refusing to grant a defense counsel's peremptory challenge to dismiss from a murder trial a juror who worked at a hospital that treated a larger number of gunshot wounds. After raising the challenge during jury selection, the trial court overruled the challenge and seated the juror. At the start of the trial, defense counsel again challenged the juror in juror's presence. That challenge was again denied, and the juror was appointed foreperson of the jury, with knowledge that the defendant's counsel had attempted to remove her from the jury. Rivera was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to 85 years in prison. The Illinois Appellate Court [official website] affirmed the conviction, rejecting the assertion that the trial court erred in refusing to grant the peremptory challenge. After remand to the trial court, the Supreme Court of Illinois [official website], while noting that the challenge should have been granted, affirmed the verdict, holding that the trial court's error was harmless. Matthew Roberts, US Assistant to the Solicitor General appearing as amicus curiae supporting the respondent, argued:
Federal law does not require automatic reversal of a conviction because the denial of a peremptory challenge at most violated only his State law rights. And even if his Federal constitutional rights had been violated, harmless error review would apply. The Constitution does not give criminal defendants the right to peremptory challenges; therefore, a — the right of a State defendant like Petitioner to exercise peremptory challenges derives entirely from State law, and when erroneous denial of a preemptory [sic] challenge deprives him only of State law right, and when the State law rights alone have been violated, State law not federal law dictates whether harmless error review applies. The violation of a State law right doesn't rise to a due process — federal due process violation unless it deprives the defendant of a fair trial. And this Court has repeatedly held that States can withhold preemptory [sic] challenges entirely without impairing the right to an impartial jury or a fair trial. It, therefore, follows that the erroneous denial of a single preemptory [sic] challenge does not render a trial fundamentally unfair.