Thursday, June 18, 2009

Court rejects DNA access claim

Splitting 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that an individual whose criminal conviction has become final does not have a constitutional right to gain access to evidence so that it can be subjected to DNA testing to try to prove innocence. This was one of four final rulings the Court issued Thursday, leaving ten remaining. The next release of opinions is expected on Monday.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., writing for the majority in District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne (08-6), noted that DNA testing provides “an unparalleled ability” to prove innocence or guilt, but its availability “cannot mean that every criminal conviction, or even every criminal conviction involving biological evidence, is suddenly in doubt.”

The task of writing rules to control access to DNA evidence “belongs primarily” to the legislature, the Chief Justice wrote.

Two of the Justices who joined the majority said in a separate opinion that they would have gone further in rejecting the DNA access claim in the case, asserting that such claims should not be pursued in a civil rights lawsuit, but through a habeas plea — but then only after trying the challenge in state court. In an opinion written by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., he and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy also said that, if a defense lawyer fails to seek DNA testing during trial, and does so for tactical reasons, there is no constitutional right to seek access following conviction. Justice Clarence Thomas joined them on that second point, but not on the need to pursue the habeas route.

In another major ruling on criminal law, the Court, dividing 6-3, decided that if a jury finds an individual not guilty on some counts, but can’t agree on the others, prosecutors may not try that individual again on the “hung” counts if they had a common element with those on which the jury acquitted. The ruling came in a case growing out of the Enron Corp. scandal — Yeager v. U.S. (08-67). Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. The Court, however, did not overturn the conviction on charges of insider trading and money laundering, but returned the case to the Fifth Circuit Court for further analysis.

In a third ruling, the Court made it more difficult for workers to prove in court their claims that they were the targets of workplace discrimination because of their age. It is up to the worker to prove that age was the decisive factor in the action taken by the employer, even if there is some evidence that the worker’s age was one factor behind the move. Juries in Age Discrimination in Employment Act cases, the Court declared, may never be told that, if there is some evidence of age bias, the burden then shifts to the employer to prove that the action would have been taken anyway. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority in the 5-4 ruling in Gross v. FBL Financial Services (08-441).

In what the Court said was a “narrow ruling” in a case that had potential for a sweeping decision on bankruptcy courts’ powers, the Justices ruled that the bankruptcy court that had approved a settlement of one facet of the reorganization plan for asbestos maker Johns Mansville Corp. had the authority to block some lawsuits filed years later. Justice David H. Souter wrote for the Court in the 7-2 decision in Travelers Indemnity, et al., v. Bailey, et al. (08-295).

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