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Court to rule on scope of retrial power

The Supreme Court on Monday stepped back into the long-running constitutional controversy over prosecutors’ power to put an individual on trial a second time for related crimes, agreeing to sort out the effect of a jury’s mixed verdict at the first trial — guilt on some counts, innocence on others.

The specific issue in a bribery and public corruption case, Bravo-Fernandez v. United States, is whether a mixed verdict actually clears the way for a new prosecution because the jury’s actions conflicted with each other, wiping out the effect of the innocence part of the verdict.  The case will be heard and decided by the Justices in the new Term starting in October.

In a second action, the Court asked the federal government for its views on when a foreign government loses its immunity from legal action in U.S. courts, because it resisted the enforcement of a arbitration ruling against it.  That case involves the northernmost Central American country.  The case is Belize v. Belize Social Development Ltd.; it grew out of a dispute over telecommunications services in Belize.

The bribery case the Court set for review involved the prosecution of a senator in Puerto Rico’s legislature and a businessman who paid for an expensive trip to Las Vegas to see the sights, including a boxing match, supposedly in return for assistance in the legislature’s enactment of a bill helpful to his private security business.

The case basically turns on the meaning of a 1970 Supreme Court ruling, Ashe v. Swenson, and a variation on the Fifth Amendment’s ban on “double jeopardy” — that is, being tried again for the same crime after the first prosecution resulted in a not-guilty verdict.  Under the Ashe precedent, a new prosecution in a multiple-count criminal case is barred if it depends upon a fact that was decided in favor of the accused at the first trial.

Former Puerto Rican senator Hector Martinez-Maldonado was accused of accepting bribes in the form of a free plane trip and free entertainment at events in Las Vegas in 2005 in return for his committee’s approval of a bill in favor of the private security firm owned by Juan Bravo-Fernandez.  (Another Puerto Rican senator, Jorge de Castro Font, was also involved in the case, but he pleaded guilty, was sentenced to five years in prison, and is no longer involved.)

Martinez-Maldonado and Bravo-Fernandez were convicted of accepting bribes for actions taken while holding government offices, but were acquitted of other bribery charges and of traveling to carry out a crime.  Each was given a four-year prison sentence.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which hears appeals in cases from Puerto Rico, overturned the convictions on which the jury had found the two men guilty, based on flawed instructions to the jury.  The case went back to the trial court in Puerto Rico, but the two men sought to block a further trial on those charges, arguing that the part of the jury’s first-trial verdict finding them not guilty had necessarily rejected a bribery theory.  The trial judge rejected the challenge, concluding that the jury may have acted irrationally in issuing verdicts that actually conflicted with each other.  That, the judge found, removed the effect of the favorable part of the jury verdict, and the charges that had led to the earlier guilty part of the verdict could be tried again.  The First Circuit agreed, finding that the inconsistent verdict worked in the prosecutors’ favor, thus permitting retrial.

Martinez-Maldonado and Bravo-Fernandez, seeking Supreme Court review, argued that lower courts are split on what is called the “collateral estoppel” variation on the ban on “double jeopardy.”  (Collateral estoppel means that a second lawsuit may not go forward if it depends upon a favorable part of an earlier trial’s conclusion.)

The Justice Department opposed review, but the Court agreed to hear the case, limited to the “collateral estoppel” question.

In the case from Belize, sent by the Court to the Justice Department for its reaction, that country’s government is seeking to head off the enforcement of an arbitration decision against it, claiming that a former prime minister of the country did not have the authority to enter into a deal with a telecommunications firm, Belize Telemedia Ltd., over that firm’s purchase of property from the government, in return for favorable tax and regulatory treatment.  Thus, Belize has argued, the arbitration clause of the contract with the firm was void and could not be enforced.

The Belize appeal turns on the meaning of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which spares foreign governments from being sued in U.S. courts for their official actions.  In this case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the arbitration clause of the disputed contract was separate from the remainder of the deal, and could be enforced.

After the Supreme Court receives the government’s views on the case, the Justices will then decide whether to hear the controversy.  There is no timetable for the government’s response.


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court to rule on scope of retrial power, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 28, 2016, 3:21 PM),