Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office.
By Ross Parker
The Supreme Court opens the 2016-2017 term on Monday with only 8 Justices because of the death last spring of Justice Scalia. The conventional wisdom is that the Court will do its best to avoid the confusion of 4-4 voting splits by postponing controversial cases another Justice is confirmed. Of course that is not always possible, particularly when the case had already been accepted while the Court was at full strength or when a case is unavoidable. An example of the latter would be a voting controversy after the Presidential election such as the 2000 case which confirmed George W. Bush’s election. God forbid the only thing that could make this election any crazier.
The Court has broad discretion in deciding what cases to accept for decision. Certiorari is granted in only about 80 of the 8,000 odd petitions that are filed. Oral arguments occur about 5 or 6 days a month from October to April. After the argument the Justices meet privately and take a preliminary vote. If the Chief Justice is in the majority, he will assign the author of the opinion. If he is in the minority, the senior Justice does so.
October’s case selections are somewhat unusual in that of the 8 cases scheduled for argument, 6 of them are criminal. Moreover, one of the two civil cases involves an issue of the liability of law enforcement agents who are sued for unconstitutional searches. Usually criminal cases comprise a third or less of the full opinion docket, about half that number of oral arguments in a month.
The first case scheduled for oral argument in the term, Bravo-Fernandez and Martinez-Maldonado v. US, involves a Puerto Rican Senator and businessman convicted of bribery in connection with gifts (Las Vegas boxing match tickets) provided to the Senator who then proceeded to vote in favor of legislation which benefitted the businessman. However, during the same prosecution, the jury also acquitted the two of other charges directly related to the issue of bribery. The verdict was irreconcilably inconsistent. On appeal the substantive bribery convictions were vacated due to erroneous instructions. The government seeks to re-try the vacated counts.
The issue before the Court is whether the factual conclusions underlying the acquittals should work to preclude the retrial under the Collateral Estoppel doctrine of the Double Jeopardy Clause. That is, should the jury’s acquittals prevent the government from retrying the defendants a second time on the charges of the vacated convictions?
As a general rule the government cannot re-litigate fact issues resolved against it in a previous prosecution. However, an exception to this rule is made in the case of inconsistent verdicts. The question is whether vacated convictions can be considered under double jeopardy to decide if the verdicts were inconsistent.
Four amicus briefs have been filed in support of the defendants’ arguments. The appeal is a prime example of why amicus briefs should be read to fully understand the issue and what is at stake in the case. One of them in particular filed on behalf of the Cato Institute is a good example of this practice ignored by most lawyers who follow Supreme Court cases. It was authored by Cato’s counsel on the appeal, David Debold, and it presents a thoughtful and erudite discussion on why the history of double jeopardy should preclude the re-trial on the vacated counts. Those of us who have worked beside Mr. Debold can only smile appreciatively at his use of an obscure theory of quantum physics to explain his point that a vacated conviction does not exist legally and so cannot be used to support the proposition that the verdicts are inconsistent.
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