Breaking News

Stating the obvious, after a while

Illustrating that it can take some time for the Supreme Court just to state the obvious, the Justices on Tuesday — after their thirteenth opportunity to look at the case — decided an Illinois dispute by finding that a lower court’s error in it was “manifest” and that the rule of law could not be clearer.  Without full briefing and oral argument, the Court ruled summarily in Martinez v. Illinois — a case that had lingered since September.

The case is about a fracas that occurred in Illinois, in the summer of 2006, when Esteban Martinez was accused of “aggravated battery and mob action” against two Elgin residents, Avery Binion and Demarco Scott.  After eight years, it is now over:  the prosecution of Martinez failed the first time around, and the Supreme Court on Tuesday barred any new trial.

While the case kept getting put off, for one reason or another, things started to move in July 2009.  But the prosecutor sought several delays, because it could not find Binion and Scott.  Finally, the judge ordered the trial to begin in May 2010.  The judge was exasperated, commenting that the two complaining witnesses were “convicted felons…well known in Elgin.”

Insisting on starting, the judge then was notified by the state’s prosecutors that they would not take any part in the trial.  A jury was chosen and sworn in, but still the state held back.  Given repeated opportunities to call witnesses, the prosecutors each time said they were not participating.

So, at the request of Martinez’s lawyer, the judge ruled that he was not guilty of either charge, and dismissed them.   The prosecutors appealed, and first a middle-level appeals court and then the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that Martinez had never been put “in jeopardy” and that the judge should have delayed the trial further.  Because the prosecutors never put on a case against him, the state supreme court found, Martinez was never “at risk.”

That is the ruling the Supreme Court unanimously struck down Tuesday.  The Illinois Supreme Court, it said, had “manifestly erred” in allowing the state to appeal, because Martinez had been ruled not guilty by the trial judge.

In the unsigned Supreme Court opinion, it remarked:  “There are few if any rules of criminal procedure clearer than the rule that jeopardy attaches when the jury is empaneled and sworn.”  That has been very clear, it said, since at least 1963.  That, the opinion added, is a “bright line” rule.

And, the opinion went on, it was just as clear that, once Martinez had been acquitted by the trial judge, he could not be subjected to retrial.  That, it remarked, is “perhaps the most fundamental rule in the history of double jeopardy jurisprudence.”

What Martinez got, it noted, was “a textbook acquittal.”

Perhaps out of deference to a state’s highest court, the Court took eleven pages to declare the case over, after they had studied it repeatedly.

The Court did grant one new case for review at its next Term.  It said it will decide, in Comptroller of the Treasury of Maryland v. Wynne, whether a state has power to tax all of the income earned by individuals who live in that state, even if they earned it in other states for which they are given no credit.

In other action, the Court asked the U.S. Solicitor General to express the government’s views on whether the Justices should hear two competing petitions that test whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has the authority to remand for a new trial on only some, but not all, of the issues raised in a patent infringement case.  The petitions are Commil USA v. Cisco Systems and Cisco Systems v. Commil USA.  There is no deadline for the government to reply.

In addition, the Court turned down a plea by James Holmes, the Colorado man accused of the massacre of theater-goers in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012.  He was seeking to force a Fox News reporter in New York, Jana Winter, to go to Colorado to take the witness stand and reveal the sources of information she received about a notebook Holmes had written to a college psychiatrist.  The notebook apparently reveals incriminating information about his case.  The case was Holmes v. Winter.   The New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) protected Winter from having to testify, under that state’s “shield law” for news reporters.

Among orders denying review of new cases, the Justices turned aside twelve different petitions that raised in one way or another issues about the kinds of documentary evidence that cannot be used in criminal trials because the author or creator of the document was not available to appear as a witness.  The Court had linked those twelve together for apparently no reason other than they were all ready at the same time.  It will have other opportunities, however, to hear such cases, if it is seeking one or more to spell out further its view of the so-called “surrogate witness” in criminal trials.


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Stating the obvious, after a while, SCOTUSblog (May. 27, 2014, 3:17 PM),