Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Supreme Court Reverses N.Y. Court of Appeals

The big news today is, of course, President Obama's nomination of New Yorker Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice Souter on the United States Supreme Court. The news did not distract the Court from attending to its own business, and it released three opinions today.

First, in Haywood v. Drown the Court reversed the New York Court of Appeals which, as I discussed last week, had upheld the constitutionality of Correction Law § 24 which bars federal 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suits for monetary damages against correction officers in New York trial courts. Under the statute, such suits must be brought against the State in the Court of Claims, which does not have trial by jury and cannot award counsel fees. 

The Court of Appeals had divided 4-3, and I stated we could anticipate a divided Supreme Court, too. The Supreme Court did vote 5-4, with Justice Stevens writing the majority opinion, and Justice Thomas the dissent. Justice Stevens' opinion notes the dissent by Judge Jones in the Court of Appeals, and adopts much of his reasoning.

Justice Stevens' opinion notes that in accordance with § 24, federal § 1983 suits for monetary damages can be brought against all sorts of public officials except correction officers--the state's policy has been to "shield this narrow class of defendants from liability when sued for damages." In accord with its precedents, the Court concluded that under the Constitution's Supremacy Clause New York cannot "shield a particular class of defendants (correction officers) from a particular type of liability (damages) brought by a particular class of plaintiffs (prisoners)." 

The Court also issued two criminal law decisions. In Montejo v. Louisiana the Court overruled Michigan v. Jackson, 475 U.S. 625 (1986), which had barred police interrogation of defendants who requested the appointment of counsel at an arraignment. The Court divided along conservative/liberal lines with Justice Scalia writing the majority opinion, and Justice Stevens writing the dissent. In Abuelhawa v. United States a unanimous Court ruled that one who telephones a drug dealer to purchase cocaine is not, under federal law, "facilitating" a felony sale and guilty of a felony himself. 

Note: Judge Sotomayor was a member of the Second Circuit panel in Ricci v. DeStefano, 530 F.3d 87 (2nd Cir. 2008), which upheld New Haven's invalidation of a civil service fire department promotion test on the grounds the results of the test had a disparate impact on racial minorities. The Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case on April 22, and a decision is expected by the end of June. Whatever the outcome, it will add fuel to Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearings in the Senate.  

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