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Court grants two cases

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to decide whether a state prison inmate may seek access to DNA evidence for use in pursuing a claim of innocence, by filing a civil rights claim after his trial is over.  In a second grant, the Court said it would decide whether a seaman may sue for punitive damages if the shipowner or operator refuses to pay benefits after the worker is injured.  Among cases denied was a constitutional test of a state program that provides added public funds to a state candidate running with a public subsidy to offset spending by a candidate not using public funds.

In the new DNA evidence case, District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne (08-6), an implied question is whether an inmate has a right under the Fourteenth Amendment, after conviction, to seek that type of evidence when the right is based upon the Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in Brady v. Maryland, requiring prosecutors to turn over evidence that would help the accused’s defense.

The Ninth Circuit Court relied upon Brady in ruling that an Alaska inmate may sue under the 19th Century civil rights law, so-called Section 1983, to discover evidence in the government’s possession in advance of filing a free-standing claim of innocence that would rely, at least in part, upon that evidence.  The case involves William G. Osborne of Anchorage, who was convicted of kidnapping, first-degree sexual assault and first-degree assault, and sentenced to 25 years in prison with five years suspended.  At Osborne’s trial, his defense lawyer made a strategic decision not to seek additional DNA testing of biological evidence found near the scene of the assault.  After his conviction, he began pursuing a post-conviction plea for access to that evidence.  If the results turned out to be favorable, he planned to file a claim of innocence in federal court.

The appeal by prosecutors contends that the Brady decision created a right of access to evidence only at the trial stage, not in a post-conviction proceeding, and contended that there is no right to pursue a free-standing claim of innocence following a trial that was free of errors.

In the new case involving the rights of an injured seaman (Atlantic Sounding, et al., v. Townsend, 08-214), the Court stepped in to resolve a conflict in lower courts on whether punitive damages are available for a shipboard worker hurt on the job if the owner or operator denies “maintenance and cure” payments.  Maintenance, in this context, means a basic living allowance and wages that a seaman otherwise would have earned, and cure means benefits that cover medical needs.

The appeal contends that the two laws that provide remedies for seamen’s injuries or death on the job — the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act — do not cover any damages other than the seaman’s own direct loss; in other words, they do not cover “non-pecuniary damages.”  The appeal asserts that the Supreme Court has made clear that benefits in the maritime industry should be uniform across the country, and should depend mainly on what Congress has authorized in legislation.

The campaign finance case turned aside by the Court Monday (Duke, et al., v . Leake, et al., 08-120) involved a challenge to a North Carolina law enacted in 2002 that provided for public financing for candidates running for seats on the state supreme court and the state court of appeals. Public money set aside in a special fund is distributed to judicial candidates who opt for public  financing of their campaigns.  An eligible candidate gets an automatic disbursement of public funds if he or she has an opponent in the general election.  Specifically at issue in the appeal by a defeated state supreme court candidate, W. Russell Duke, Jr., is a feature of the state law that provides a matching grant if an opposing candidate not using public financing exceeds a base level of spending.  That feature was upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court.

The Court also declined to address another issue that has divided lower courts — the scope of the government’s duty to provide immunity for a public employee before requiring that worker to answer potentially incriminating questions during an internal investigation (Aguilera, et al., v. Baca, 05-1547).  And it denied review of a claim that police must have a warrant before they may tow in a vehicle they have stopped in order to get it off the street and out of traffic, if the police department does not have a standard policy to govern such actions (Smith v. U.S., 08-33).

Once again, the Court took no action on a significant case from West Virginia, testing whether there is a constitutional right to have a judge step aside from a case involving the financial interests of a major donor to that judge’s election campaign. The case is Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal (08-22).