March 8, 2011
Supreme Court Action
The Supreme Court issued three opinions yesterday, one of which made an impact on the news. That case of the three is Skinner v. Switzer (09-9000), where the Court sided with an inmate who was seeking DNA testing on evidence that had been taken from the scene but not examined or used at trial. The vehicle to that position was unusual as the Court said is was ok to raise the issue in a §1983 civil rights case rather than strictly through a habeas corpus proceeding.
Skinner was convicted in Texas for a rather brutal murder. Some years after the conviction Texas enacted Article 64 which allows for postconviction DNA testing in some circumstances. The Texas courts denied Skinner's petition on various grounds including the statutory requirement that the evidence was not tested through no fault of the defendant. Skinner's counsel passed on testing some of the evidence as he thought it could conclusively implicate his client. A sound trial strategy noted the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, but one that did not meet the requirements for postconviction testing.
Skinner's next move was the §1983 claim in federal court, which was dismissed by the District Court and affirmed by the Court of Appeals. Both said that §1983 suits are not appropriate for relief. The Supreme Court reversed, noting that Skinner as not challenging the validity of his conviction, nor would the results of the test necessarily be exculpatory. Skinner had properly alleged a civil rights violation by challenging the Texas courts' interpretation of Article 64, which denied him the ability to utilize other existing procedures to challenge his conviction.
The case of Wall v. Kholi (09-868) answers the question as to what constitutes "collateral review" as it applies to actions that may toll the time period for a prisoner filing a habeas corpus petition. Applicable law requires that the petition be filed within one year from the time a conviction becomes final. Kholi's conviction became final in 1996 and his first postconviction motion to reduce sentence was denied in final review in 1998. His second postconviction motion was also denied and that denial was final in 2006. He needed tolling generated by both motions to qualify for a timely habeas corpus petition.
The Court's analysis was based on the meaning of the words "collateral review." and in particular whether the original motion for sentence reduction qualified as an collateral review action. Dictionary analysis of the words "collateral" and "review" suggest collateral means "indirect" and review means "judicial re-examination." The Rhode Island rule governing sentence reduction is similar to the applicable federal rule. That, the definitions, and the various courts' own precedent construing the federal rule as collateral review was enough to hold in favor of Kholi. One interesting point in this case is the Court's use of dictionaries and linguistics to reach a decision. This trend was noted in a recent article in The Atlantic concerning the AT&T opinion released on March 1.
The third case is Milner v. Department of the Navy (09-1163). Like the AT&T case, it interprets the Freedom of Information Act, in particular Exemption 2. That covers material concerning employee relations or human resources. Lower courts used earlier Supreme Court precedent on the exemption to interpret the exemption in two ways. The "Low 2" exemption covered human resources and employee relations records and the “High 2” exemption applied to records whose disclosure would risk circumvention of the law.
Milner had requested information for explosives data and maps used by the Navy in storing munitions at a naval base in Washington State. The Navy invoked Exemption 2. The Courts relied on the High 2 interpretation and found for the Navy. The Supreme Court reversed, stating that the Low 2 interpretation is all the Exemption 2 covers. The Navy may have other exemptions it can potentially invoke, though those will have to be litigated in further proceedings to test their validity.
In other Supreme Court news, Ars Technica reports that the Court will hear arguments in the next term on whether items in the public domain can be restored to copyright status by treaty obligations where the work is still in copyright in a foreign jurisdiction also a party to the treaty. [MG]