Court says judges can recall discharged juries

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court said last Thursday that judges may - in rare circumstances - call a jury back to the courtroom after it has delivered a verdict and been dismissed.

The justices ruled 6-2 in a case involving a traffic accident in Montana. The decision only applies to civil lawsuits. The court did not address whether judges could recall a jury in a criminal case.

A federal jury was deliberating how much to award a man whose car was broadsided at an intersection. The amount was supposed to be something more than the $10,000 the parties had previously agreed to. Instead, jurors said the defendant owed nothing.

The judge discharged the jury before he realized a mistake had been made. He recalled jurors to service, and they quickly awarded the man $15,000 before going home for good.

The issue before the high court was whether the judge could call them back.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court that a judge has authority to recall jurors, but must be aware that they could be exposed to outside influences.

In one example, Sotomayor wrote about the "now-ingrained instinct to check our phones whenever possible." So jurors may almost instantly be able to text something about the case or read reaction to the verdict on social media, she said.

"Prejudice can come through a whisper or a byte," Sotomayor wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissent that a hard-and-fast rule against recalling juries is needed in "today's world of cellphones, wireless internet and 24/7 news coverage." Justice Anthony Kennedy signed onto Thomas' opinion.

The case is Dietz v. Bouldin, 15-458.

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Justices find judicial bias in Pennsylvania death row case

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court ruled last Thursday that a state judge was wrong to participate in the case of a death row inmate whose prosecution he personally approved nearly 30 years earlier.

The justices voted 5-3 to hold that the judge violated defendant Terrance "Terry" Williams' constitutional rights by taking part in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's consideration of Williams' case.

Ronald Castille was the Philadelphia district attorney when he signed off on the death penalty prosecution of Williams in 1986. Nearly 30 years later, Castille was chief justice of Pennsylvania's top court when it voted unanimously to reinstate Williams' death sentence after a lower court judge had tossed it out.

Castille, now retired, refused defense requests to withdraw from the case.

The Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Williams, even though Castille was just one of six votes. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, joined by the court's four liberal justices.

"Chief Justice Castille's participation in Williams' case was an effort that affected the State Supreme Court's whole adjudicatory framework below," Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy also was the author of the court's last major case about judicial ethics. In 2009, he also was in agreement with the liberal justices in ruling that elected judges must step aside from cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias.

A judge's decision about sitting out a case is a sensitive topic at the high court.

The justices decide for themselves when they should not participate. Justice Antonin Scalia, who died 16 days before Williams' case was argued at the Supreme Court in February, once famously explained in a 21-page memo why he would not step aside from a case in which then-Vice President Richard Cheney was a party, after Scalia and Cheney went on a duck-hunting trip together in Louisiana.

Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented last Thursday, just as they had in the earlier case. Roberts said state authorities should decide the issue.

He wrote that the court was wrong to rule that the legal maxim "no man can be a judge in his own case" mandated Castille's absence from Williams' case.

"The majority opinion rests on proverb rather than precedent," Roberts wrote.

Williams' death sentence was thrown out in 2012, five days before he was scheduled to be executed.

Williams, who had been a star high school quarterback, was convicted of killing a church deacon. He already had been convicted of killing a high school booster, for which he was sentenced to up to 27 years in prison.

The state judge found that Philadelphia prosecutors had withheld evidence that the deacon was molesting boys. Williams claimed the deacon had sexually abused him for years, although he did not make that allegation at his trial.

Prosecutors described Williams as a vicious double-murderer who at best perjured himself - if the abuse claims are true - when he told jurors he barely knew the church deacon and did not kill him. The married 56-year-old deacon, Amos Norwood, was beaten to death with a tire iron in a cemetery. The earlier victim, 50-year-old Herbert Hamilton, was beaten and stabbed in bed. Both bodies were set on fire.

When Castille's court reinstated Williams' death sentence, Castille wrote that the lawyers and scholars supporting Williams' case were "abolitionists ... trying to figure out ways to overcome the death penalty."

Pennsylvania has not executed anyone since 1999, and Gov. Tom Wolf last year announced a freeze on the death penalty shortly after taking office.

The case is Williams v. Pennsylvania, 15-5040.

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Court rules against Puerto Rico in fight over criminal law

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court last Thursday ruled against Puerto Rico in a politically charged dispute over the island's power to enforce its own criminal laws.

The justices ruled 6-2 that the U.S. territory can't prosecute people for local crimes if they've already been convicted of similar charges in federal court.

The ruling helps clarify the island's legal status at a time when the issue has caused deep divisions between officials from the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

The court sided with two men who said the principle of double jeopardy prevented Puerto Rico officials from prosecuting them on weapons charges after they had already pleaded guilty to federal charges for the same offense.

Puerto Rico officials had argued that the island could still bring charges under its own laws -something that the 50 states have power to do under the principle of state sovereignty.

Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said Congress remains the "ultimate source" of the island's legal power even though Puerto Rico has its own constitution.

"Put simply, Congress conferred the authority to create the Puerto Rico constitution, which in turn confers the authority to bring criminal charges," Kagan said. "That makes Congress the original source of power for Puerto Rico's prosecutors - as it is for the federal government's. The island's constitution, significant though it is, does not break the chain."

Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, saying that over time, the source of Puerto Rico's criminal law "ceased to be the U.S. Congress and became Puerto Rico itself, its people and its constitution." He was joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor whose parents were born in Puerto Rico.

The case is one of two high court disputes over Puerto Rico's legal authority. In the second case to be decided later this month, the justices are considering whether the island can deal with its fiscal crisis by restructuring the debt of its financially ailing public utilities. A lower court said the island does not have that power.

The criminal case involves Luis Sanchez Valle and James Gomez Vazquez, who pleaded guilty in federal court to selling illegal firearms. When Puerto Rican officials later charged them under local laws, they moved to dismiss the charges on double jeopardy grounds.

The Puerto Rico Supreme Court ultimately sided with the men, ruling that the island is not a separate sovereign. The Puerto Rican government said that decision stripped the island of the ability to enforce its own criminal laws without federal interference and ignored the power of Puerto Rico's people to pass their own laws.

The Caribbean island has been a territory since the United States acquired it in 1898. It gained some autonomy in 1952 when it adopted its own constitution with the approval of Congress and was allowed to enact its own local laws.

The Obama administration had argued that Puerto Rico's power to enforce local laws really comes from Congress, which in theory could take it away. That position angered Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who complained to the United Nations that the government was reversing its prior position and standing in the way of "meaningful self-government" by the people of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Cesar Miranda said the decision will have "a limited impact on criminal prosecution," but added that it is now up to Puerto Rico officials to decide the future of their relationship with the United States.

Ricardo Rossello, president of Puerto Rico's pro-statehood party, said the ruling demonstrates what he called the fallacy of the island's current political status.

"It is once again proven that we live in a colony," said Rossello, who is running for governor this year. "It's time to join forces to ensure that the will of the people is validated at the polls and obtain the only status option that guarantees us equal treatment like that of other U.S. citizens: statehood."


Associated Press writer Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.

Published: Mon, Jun 13, 2016