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Court overturns victim buttons ruling

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a federal appeals court had no basis under existing law for overturning a state court ruling that allowed the family members of a murder victim to wear buttons with his picture during the trial. Six members of the Court said it remained an open question whether the conduct of spectators at a trial, as opposed to activities of the prosecution, could be so prejudicial as to deny a fair trial to the accused.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the main opinion in Carey v. Musladin (05-785), and had the full support of five other Justices for a very narrow ruling, based largely on federal habeas law. Three Justices wrote separately, raising questions about allowing spectators to engage in courtroom activity that arguably might impair trial fairness.

Thomas said that it was not an unreasonable application of “clearly established federal law” when a state court in California held that “buttons displaying the victim’s image worn by the victim’s family during [Musladin’s] trial did not” deny his right to a fair trial. “In contrast to state-sponsored courtroom practices [such as requiring an inmate to wear prison garb], the effect on a defendant’s fair-trial righs of the spectator conduct to which Musladin objects is an open question in our jurisprudence. This Court has never addressed a claim that such private-actor courtroom conduct was so inherently prejudicial that it deprvied a defendant of a fair trial.”

Because there was no guidance on this question from the Supreme Court, Thomas concluded, federal habeas law (AEDPA) barred the NInth Circuit Court from finding that the spectator conduct in Musladin’s trial was outside the bounds of existing law.

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens joined only in the result in Musladin’s case, and wrote separate opinions outlining their concerns over leaving spectators’ conduct out of prior holdings about potential prejudicial activities inside a criminal trial courtroom. With three Justices unwilling to support Thomas’ opinion, it appeared that that opinion had to be kept narrow in order to hold the votes of a sufficient number of Justices to maintain a majority.

The case involved Matthew Musladin, who was convicted of first-degree murder of the boy friend of his former wife. The boy friend was Tom Studer. At Musladin’s trial, Studer’s mother, father and brother wore buttons bearing his photograph while seated in the front row of the courtroom. Defense counsel objected, but the trial judge rejected the challenge, finding that a photograph alone could not be prejudicial. That ruling was upheld in higher state courts, but was overturned in a 2-1 decision of the Ninth Circuit.

In the second of two rulings on Monday, the Court declared unanimously that a six-year time limit on claims by the federal government for money damages that applies when the claim is made in court does not apply to administrative actions by a federal agency seeking to recover royalties on federal oil and gas leases. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., wrote the opinion in BP America Production Co. v. Burton (05-669). Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Stephen G. Breyer did not take part in the ruling.

With these two rulings and new orders, the Court completed its public sessions until after the holidays. The next scheduled public sitting is Monday, Jan. 8.

The Court granted no new cases for review on Monday. Among the cases it declined to hear was an appeal by a former FBI employee who sought clarification of the type of harmful action toward an employee that would be treated as sexual harassment under federal job bias law. Lower courts are divided on what constitutes “tangible employment action, which triggers strict liability for an employer under federal law. The denial came in Lutkewitte v. Gonzales (06-28). Chief Justice Roberts took no part in the order.

The Court declined to reconsider a 27-year-old ruling that a state government has no legal immunity to lawsuits against it in the courts of another state. A Montana state agency had challenged the continuing vitality of the Nevada v. Hall decision in 1979. The case of Montana Board of Investments v. Deutsche Bank Securities (06-291) involved a lawsuit in New York state courts against the Montana agency for alleged breach of contract under New York law in a securities transaction. The only member of the Supreme Court at the time of Nevada v. Hall who is still on the Court is Justice Stevens, who wrote that decision.

The Court took no action, again, on a case testing the constitutionality of New York
City public schools’ policy on displays of religious symbols during holiday seasons. The Court has examined the case of Skoros v. New York City (06-271) at three Conferences without taking any action on it. Because the Court is now in recess until next month, no action on it is expected until after this year’s holidays are over.

No action was taken on Monday on two cases in which the U.S. Solicitor General, after being asked for his views, urged Supreme Court review. The cases are Powerex Corp. v. Reliant Energy (05-85) and Powerex Corp. v. California (05-584), raising the question whether a foreign company doing commercial business in the U.S. is to be treated as an organ of a foreign government and thus entitled to legal immunity in U.S. courts. The cases grew out of the energy crisis in California in 2000 and 2001. Powerex contends that it is an arm of the province of British Columbia in Canada, but the NInth Circuit Court rejected that argument.