February 28, 2011
Supreme Court Action Today
The one opinion issued by the Supreme Court today concerns the Confrontation Clause. It is one of those rulings where the Court analyzes the facts and circumstances of the underlying case to determine the application of the law in a different way than had come before. Two dissents by Justices Scalia and Ginsburg take the Court to task for its departure from established law.
Police encountered a mortally wounded Covington at a gas station in Detroit. He was shot some distance away and drove himself to the station. Police called for medical assistance and questions Covington about what happened. Covington told police that Bryant (the respondent in this case) had shot him at Covington's house and that he drove himself away. The Michigan courts convicted Bryant of second degree murder but that conviction was reversed by the Michigan Supreme Court. It held that the statements were inadmissible hearsay using other U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
The Supreme Court reversed the Michigan Supreme Court, holding that Covington's statements about Bryant were not testimonial. Rather, their "primary purpose" was to assist the police in meeting an ongoing emergency. The Court distinguished earlier precedent where statements were taken in non-emergency circumstances. The underlying subject of those cases was domestic violence, which provided a different application of the Confrontation Clause.
The Court calls the the primary purpose inquiry objective, noting the existence of an "ongoing emergency" as the most important circumstance informing the primary purpose. The Court then states that whether an emergency exists and is ongoing is a highly context-dependent inquiry. By analyzing the facts of the underlying shooting and the police response, the Court reached its conclusion that its earlier precedent did not apply. The dissents take the Court to task for blowing big holes in what up to now was consistent Confrontation Clause jurisprudence. The case is Michigan v. Bryant (09-150). [MG]