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Petitions of the week

COVID-related postponements and prosecutorial delays under the Speedy Trial Act

This week we highlight cert petitions that ask the Supreme Court to consider, among other things, claims from two criminal defendants under the Speedy Trial Act, which dictates timeframes for different stages of criminal prosecutions.  

Under the Speedy Trial Act, the government must file an indictment within 30 days of arresting someone, and the trial must begin within 70 days of the indictment. If the government fails to meet these deadlines, the defendant can move to dismiss the indictment. However, the Speedy Trial Act allows for continuances in certain situations, including “on the basis of [the judge’s] findings that the ends of justice served by taking such action outweigh the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial.” In such cases, the court must “set[] forth” the reasons for its findings, according to statutory factors. Finally, when a judge dismisses a case under the Speedy Trial Act, the judge may at times do so “with prejudice,” barring the government from seeking a new indictment for the conduct.

Olsen v. United States raises claims under the Speedy Trial Act related to delays in jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally scheduled for May 2020, Jeffrey Olsen’s trial was delayed after the beginning of the pandemic. By order of the chief judge, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California did not hold any jury trials until May 2021. The parties in Olsen’s case initially agreed to postpone the trial until October 2020, but the judge denied the government’s request for another continuance and asked the chief judge to summon jurors. After the chief judge denied this request, the judge in Olsen’s case dismissed the indictment with prejudice. By statute, one factor that can support a continuance for the “ends of justice” occurs when “the failure to grant such a continuance in the proceeding would be likely to make a continuation of such proceeding impossible.” Noting that the state courthouse across the street was conducting jury trials (and that other businesses in the county were open), the judge determined that having a jury trial in Olsen’s case was not “impossible.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed, ruling that the district court erred in focusing on only the physical possibility of holding a trial. The chief judge’s moratorium on jury trials in the Central District did indeed make Olsen’s trial impossible, the 9th Circuit held. In his petition, Olsen claims circuit splits over aspects of the 9th Circuit’s analysis.

In Gottesfeld v. United States, Martin Gottesfeld was indicted 246 days after his arrest, after six ends-of-justice continuances. Despite the statutory requirement, Gottesfeld argues, the judge did not “set[] forth” any reasons in the record for why the “ends of justice” supported the continuances. After Gottesfeld filed a motion to dismiss, a second judge found a justification for the continuances in that Gottesfeld had “indicated that he was ‘seriously considering’ a plea agreement.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit affirmed, on the ground that “the statute does not require that the judge who grants the continuance must be the same judge who sets forth in the record the reasons for the ultimate decision to exclude time.” In his petition, Gottesfeld maintains that the circuits are split on this question. (In a separate issue, Gottesfeld argues that the judge exceeded his discretion because the judge responded to Gottesfeld’s three motions for recusal alleging conflicts of interests with only the directive, “Motion denied,” without any explanation or disclosure. The 1st Circuit also rejected this argument.)

These and other petitions of the week are below:

Animal Science Products, Inc. v. Hebei Welcome Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd.
Issues: (1) Whether, despite the Supreme Court’s “well established” interpretation of the Sherman Act, U.S. courts may reinterpret the same text of that act case by case using a discretionary 10-factor balancing test under the doctrine of prescriptive comity; and (2) whether a court interpreting the meaning of foreign law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 44.1 is limited to the “face” of written legal materials, as the decision below held, or may also consider evidence as to how foreign law is implemented and enforced that would be relevant to the interpretive inquiry in the foreign legal system.

City of Edmond, Oklahoma v. BNSF Railway Company
Issues: (1) Whether, in determining whether a state law affecting railroads is preempted, a court may look only to the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 5th and 10th Circuits have held, or whether courts must also consider all other relevant federal railroad statutes (such as the Federal Railroad Safety Act), as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 2nd, 6th, 8th, 9th, and District of Columbia Circuits have held; and (2) whether state authority over rail safety, expressly preserved by the FRSA, includes public safety at rail crossings, as the 8th Circuit holds with agreement from the relevant federal agency, or whether it is limited to state regulation of the safety of participants in the railroad system, as the 10th Circuit held.

Grady v. United States
Issue: Whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act imposes a burden on the government to demonstrate that it has actually considered and rejected the efficacy of less restrictive measures before adopting the challenged practice (in this case, prosecution of Clare Grady, Carmen Trotta, and Martha Hennessy) as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 1st, 3rd, and 9th Circuits would require, or whether the persons claiming under RFRA the infringement of their religious freedoms bear the burden to provide alternative means which the government need merely refute, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 8th and 10th Circuits would hold, and as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held below.

Gottesfeld v. United States
Issues: (1) Whether, under the Speedy Trial Act, if one judge grants an “ends of justice” continuance but fails to explain why, a different judge can make the requisite findings to support the continuance; and (2) whether, when confronted with specific allegations supporting judicial disclosure and disqualification, a district court exceeds its discretion by denying a disqualification motion without any explanation or disclosure necessary to facilitate meaningful appellate review.

Olsen v. United States
Issues: (1) Whether a district court may dismiss an indictment under the Speedy Trial Act, when the district court finds that it is possible to hold a jury trial safely, but when a districtwide order forbids the holding of jury trials; and (2) whether a district court may dismiss an indictment with prejudice as a remedy for a Speedy Trial Act violation when the court, not the prosecutor, is principally at fault for the delay.

Recommended Citation: Andrew Hamm, COVID-related postponements and prosecutorial delays under the Speedy Trial Act, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 15, 2022, 4:16 PM),