Monday, March 7, 2011

Today's SCOTUS Decision in Skinner v. Switzer: Use of Section 1983 to Compel DNA Testing of Crime-Scene Evidence

Today the Supreme Court issued its decision in Skinner v. Switzer, holding by a 6-3 vote that a § 1983 suit is a proper vehicle for compelling DNA testing of crime-scene evidence. Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan) explains:

In Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U. S. 74 (2005), we comprehensively surveyed this Court’s decisions on the respective provinces of §1983 civil rights actions and §2254 federal habeas petitions. Habeas is the exclusive remedy, we reaffirmed, for the prisoner who seeks “immediate or speedier release” from confinement. Id., at 82. Where the prisoner’s claim would not “necessarily spell speedier release,” however, suit may be brought under §1983. Ibid. Adhering to our opinion in Dotson, we hold that a postconviction claim for DNA testing is properly pursued in a §1983 action. Success in the suit gains for the prisoner only access to the DNA evidence, which may prove exculpatory, inculpatory, or inconclusive. In no event will a judgment that simply orders DNA tests “necessarily impl[y] the unlawfulness of the State’s custody.” Id., at 81. We note, however, that the Court’s decision in Osborne [129 S. Ct. 2308 (2009)] severely limits the federal action a state prisoner may bring for DNA testing. Osborne rejected the extension of substantive due process to this area, and left slim room for the prisoner to show that the governing state law denies him procedural due process.

Justice Ginsburg described Skinner’s due process claim as follows: “He does not challenge the prosecutor’s conduct or the decisions reached by the [state court] in applying Article 64 to his motions; instead, he challenges, as denying him procedural due process, Texas’ postconviction DNA statute ‘as construed’ by the Texas courts.”

Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Kennedy and Alito. He writes:

We have not previously addressed whether due process challenges to state collateral review procedures may be brought under §1983, and I would hold that they may not. Challenges to all state procedures for reviewing the validity of a conviction should be treated the same as challenges to state trial procedures, which we have already recognized may not be brought under §1983. Moreover, allowing such challenges under §1983 would undermine Congress’ strict limitations on federal review of state habeas decisions. If cognizable at all, Skinner’s claim sounds in habeas corpus.


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Spurious logic from the majority. Just why, except perhaps to drag out the appeals process ever longer, would an inmate request DNA testing other than to seek immediate or speedier release from confinement?

Posted by: Eric | Mar 9, 2011 10:36:04 PM

Another Rooker-Feldman case. Wattashock! For the past decade, e.g., Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp., 544 U. S. 280 (2005), the Court has been trying to cabin in abuses of this odious doctrine -- one which “has produced nothing but mischief for 23 years,” Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 461 (2006) (Stevens, J., dissenting) -- to no avail. One is thereby left to ponder precisely what Their Majesties would propose to force the legions of black-robed petty tyrants infesting the lower federal courts to actually follow their solemn dictates. See e.g., Chad M. Oldfather, Defining Judicial Inactivism: Models of Adjudication and the Duty to Decide, 94 Geo. L.J. 121 (2005); William M. Richman, Who Are the Juristocrats? Guerilla Warfare Among the Courts (2005), at
The Court has an opportunity to address the issue, in a direct challenge to the constitutionality of certiorari review. Smith v. Thomas, No. 10-935;

"This is a matter of first impression in this Court, concerning issues of paramount importance not only to the Nation, but also this Court. If lower courts are no longer bound by its pronouncements, it has abdicated its authority to “declare what the law is,” Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137, 177 (1803), and the United States Reports has limited value even as birdcage liner."

Id. at 15. But as we all know, the pro se litigant has a better chance of winning Powerball than he does of obtaining an audience in the Court.

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