Monday, May 24, 2010
Court Declines to Address Private Prosecution
A sharply divided Supreme Court today dismissed cert. in Robertson v. United States ex rel. Watson as improvidently granted. The majority issued a one-line dismissal; Chief Justice Roberts wrote a 12-page dissent for himself and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Sotomayor.
The case involved Ms. Wykenna Watson's criminal contempt case against Mr. John Robertson in the D.C. courts for violation of a civil protection order after Robertson beat Watson (for a second time). The D.C. court judged Robertson guilty of violation of three counts of criminal contempt and sentenced him to prison plus restitution.
The problem: The AUSA had already entered into a plea agreement with Robertson for the underlying assault, and the D.C. courts already sentenced him to one to three years.
The D.C. courts upheld Robertson's sentence imposed in Ms. Watson's criminal contempt case. Robertson argued to the Supreme Court that that violated due process and separation-of-powers considerations, because he had already been sentenced for the underlying assault (the due process claim) and because private parties lack authority to prosecute criminal cases (the core separation-of-powers claim--that only the executive can bring criminal charges).
The Supreme Court granted cert. against the advice of the U.S. government and today dismissed cert. as improvidently granted. (The government argued that the D.C. court ruling didn't conflict with Supreme Court precedent and that, in any event, this case was a poor vehicle for deciding the important and complex constitutional issues.)
Chief Justice Roberts wrote in dissent that "[o]ur entire criminal justice system is premised on the notion that a criminal prosecution pits the government against the governed, not one private citizen against another."
Alas, the case was never that simple. The parties' arguments on the constitutional text, the history, and the practice of private prosecution (Robertson's here; Watson's here) gives just a glimpse of how complicated the questions are. This case only added to the complexities: The private criminal contempt case grew out of an assault that was already punished by the government (adding to the due process concerns), and in an area of the law--domestic violence--that often relies on private enforcement but also demands a stronger public response. As the government argued at the cert. stage, this was, indeed, a bad case to address these issues.