Supreme Court Firms Up State Immunity From Wrongful Conviction Lawsuits

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

By a ideologically right-left, 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today (PDF) that a wrongly convicted Louisiana man—who at one point was just weeks away from execution—isn’t permitted to sue the DA’s office that for 14 years sat on the evidence proving his innocence.

Jacob Sullum wrote about Connick v. Thompson in March of last year. As Sullum pointed out, while it’s clear that prosecutors knew about the evidence for years (a bloody piece of cloth), there are competing theories about whether they knew they had to turn the cloth over and willfully withheld it anyway, or if they simply didn’t know they were obligated to turn it over. (As Sullum also noted, it’s hard to decide which scenario is worse.) The latter seems rather unlikely, even though during the civil trial, Orelans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick and his assistants apparently couldn’t articulate the Brady Rule, the law requiring the disclosure of such evidence. Of course, the former—the willful misconduct—is also much harder to prove.

In any case, the Court’s ruling today, taken with past rulings, further illustrates how the old mantra that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” seems to apply to everyone except actual members of law enforcement.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, found that the failure of Connick (fun side note: he’s the father of crooner Harry Connick, Jr.) to train his assistants on their obligations to turn over exculpatory evidence isn’t negligent enough to subject the government that employs him to liability. Connick and his assistants themselves (an office with a long history of misconduct) were already protected from any personal liability by absolute prosecutorial immunity, a concept the Supreme Court essentially invented from whole cloth.

Keith Findley, President of the Innocence Network, comments:

“Basically, what the Court is saying is that because they are lawyers, there was no reason for the District Attorney to believe that his prosecutors might need training to be sure they are fulfilling their constitutional obligations to disclose information that might be useful to their defense. This logic completely ignores the reality of what happened to John Thompson who was sentenced to death by prosecutors who repeatedly failed in their obligation to disclose exculpatory information. No other profession is shielded from this complete lack of accountability.”

The ruling also negates a $14 million jury award to John Thompson, the man wrongly convicted. It also means that for his 18 years in prison, 14 of which he spent on death row, Thompson will now at most get $150,000, the maximum compensation for a wrongful conviction allowed under Louisiana law.

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47 Responses to “Supreme Court Firms Up State Immunity From Wrongful Conviction Lawsuits”

  1. #1 |  edmund dantes | 

    If it wasn’t already abundantly clear, there are two separate levels of Justice in this country. All the justice for the rich and powerful (so long as they stay in favor), and none for anyone else.

    While many Americans whistle all the way. It’ll never happen to me.

    LMAO

  2. #2 |  celticdragon | 

    I am not going to suggest what Thompson should do, since I don’t want to banned from this site.

  3. #3 |  Nando | 

    In short, what the Justices have done, is open the door for prosecutors to wilfully withhold evidence knowing that neither they (due to absolute immunity) nor their offices (thanks to this ruling) can be held accountable. But, of course, we know this won’t happen because all lawyers live by a code of professionalism that doesn’t allow them to even contemplate such a thing.

    Guess we’re safe now!

  4. #4 |  Lior | 

    I actually agree with the idea that failing to train attorneys is a very tenuous ground for this lawsuit. Instead, the attorneys themselves ought to be liable for failing to know long-standing USSC rulings like Brady.

    In this respect, I advise everyone to read the text of §1983, which is short and clear. In particular, note the broad reach of the first sentence beginning with “Every person …”, and the sentence giving “judicial officers” (which includes prosecutors) immunity from injunctions. Having done this you can consider the real question: how can prosecutors enjoy “absolute immunity” from lawsuits under §1983, when the statue already contains a very specific and limited immunity for them? It should be obvious to anyone (USSC judges must be excepted at this point) that had Congress wished for such an immunity it could have written it into the statue — moreover that adding the limited immunity would make no sense if absolute immunity was also included somehow.

  5. #5 |  DarkEFang | 

    In cases like this, I’ve always wondered what authorities expect people like this to do for a living after they’ve spent all that time in prison. The only kinds of jobs I can think of for which an 18-year gap in employment history doesn’t matter would be those that involve whatever criminal skills he managed to pick up from the other inmates.

    At a minimum, he should be paid the same as if he was a prison guard for those 18 years, working 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, with double, triple and quadruple overtime.

  6. #6 |  croaker | 

    @2 Likewise

    A certain JFK quote comes to mind…

  7. #7 |  OBTC | 

    #2
    “I am not going to suggest what Thompson should do, since I don’t want to banned from this site.”

    I’m pretty sure I know what you’re not saying and I agree.

  8. #8 |  paranoiastrksdp | 

    Not surprising. The supremes always rule in favor of state power.

  9. #9 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    The Supremes do not ALWAYS rule in favor of State power, or the recent ruling on the 2nd amendment would not have set the cat amongst the pigeons. They do, however, tend to rule the way things have been trending for a long time, as do all courts. The exceptions to this can be great victories for Justice or unconstitutional meddling with legislative authority, depending on whether one agrees with the Court.

    From what Radley has been saying for some time now, there is a long term trend toward protecting officers of the State from the consequences of their misbehavior, and too many are taking advantage of this. If the Court is disinclined to rule against this, gnashing our teeth and rending our garments will avail us naught. Start writing to your representative demanding legislation to curb the immunity plague. Join together with like-minded people and make a serious pest of yourself on the subject. That’s how this government is supposed to work (to the extent that it does).

    It would be nice if we could count on a benevolent Court to Right all Wrongs, but the Court is a human institution. The government, for that matter, is a human institution. It will be inefficient and often wrong. Pray God that it remain so. An efficient Government is a serious menace.

  10. #10 |  Whim | 

    DarkEFang wonders what employment John Thompson could find after spending 18 years in a Louisiana prison, 14 of them in a windowless, six-by-nine-foot Death Row cell.

    With his $14 million jury award now thrown out the window by the SUCO for his 14 years on Death Row, an obvious vocation would be:

    Hunter.

  11. #11 |  the innominate one | 

    Yo, fuck SCOTUS.

    I’d suggest that we need a constitutional amendment making clear that absolute immunity doesn’t exist and laying out the boundaries of qualified immunity, but that seems so unlikely to happen that wishing it would happen would be just as effective as asking our “representatives” to make it happen.

  12. #12 |  CyniCAl | 

    “Connick and his assistants themselves (an office with a long history of misconduct) were already protected from any personal liability by absolute prosecutorial immunity, a concept the Supreme Court essentially invented from whole cloth.”

    Not really. The logical basis for absolute prosecutorial immunity is the prerogative of the sovereign. That’s what sovereignty is, the sovereign IS the law.

    Still, can’t help but remember Dr. King’s words: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

  13. #13 |  CyniCAl | 

    #9 | C. S. P. Schofield – “The Supremes do not ALWAYS rule in favor of State power, or the recent ruling on the 2nd amendment would not have set the cat amongst the pigeons.”

    Since the Supreme Court is an organ of the State, ANY ruling they issue strengthens State power. That’s the perfection of the system. And that is why the State will never be defeated as long as individuals participate in its violent regime.

  14. #14 |  Law Prof | 

    Even though they occasionally rule in favor of individuals, ALL the so-called “Conservatuive” justices are statists and cop-groupies.

    The effect of this ruling will be to release prosecutors from ANY personal obligation to seek Justice. Humpty-Dumpty is broken and all the Conservatives in black robes won’t put him back together again.

    It makes me feel unclean to be a lawyer.

  15. #15 |  countyworker | 

    I just read the actual opinion something that neither the author nor the commenters have done. The sole issue is whether lack of training can be proved by a single instance as opposed to a pattern of practice.

    The court correctly ruled that the management cannot be held liable based on a single instance…nothing new in that holding. All the other idiotic comments are irrelevant.

  16. #16 |  J.E. Andreasen | 

    Every time government organs exculpate a fellow by immunizing them they believe their immunity is global. This error is made due to hubris, and is reinforced because few victims press for justice outside of the government’s rigged system. The victims having been “hypnotized”, by an old meme.

    In reality, by gutting peaceful redress, the government organs gradually awaken a different, and vigorous court. This court convenes rarely, and renders stern, remarkably final, judgments. This court adjudicates according to the Law of the Jungle.

  17. #17 |  Z | 

    The majority consisted of Scalia, Alito, Thomas, Roberts and Kennedy. There was no “ideologically right-left” union here. It was the five people most in favor of using government power to control the population and least in favor of using government power to empower the population.

    #14- I knew the moment Thompson won on a tie at the 5th Circuit that the supreme court would step in an he would lose. They can act with surprising alacrity when their pet causes/groups are threatened.

    #9- the 2nd amendment is the only one which expands individual rights and is still favored by the right wing. (A case could be made for the tenth in some contexts). Possibly because their narrow coalition is an amalgamation of racist gun nuts, religious gun nuts and the oligarchs who egg them on to ensure that they will never see the true cause of their misery.

  18. #18 |  freedomfan | 

    Law Prof (#14),

    Even though they occasionally rule in favor of individuals, ALL the so-called “Conservatuive” justices are statists and cop-groupies.

    The effect of this ruling will be to release prosecutors from ANY personal obligation to seek Justice. Humpty-Dumpty is broken and all the Conservatives in black robes won’t put him back together again./blockquote>
    While I understand with the sentiment, the issue of who’s a statist on the Court is just not an issue of liberal vs. conservative. I assume most of us will recall that it was Thomas who wrote a separate dissent in Raich, excoriating the majority for allowing the government such unlimited power. And, of course, in Kelo, the pro-statist (and, not incidentally, pro-big business) majority could hardly be said to be the conservatives. As for which justices are cop groupies, though new, I don’t think justice Sotomayor has done much to invalidate the concerns that Radley noted during her confirmation.

    The sad reality is that both “sides” are statist, in aggregate. It only serves to obscure the issue to paint it as a Team Red versus Team Blue thing, because it gives false hope that rooting for one side or the other represents supporting justice, when it does not.

  19. #19 |  Buddy Hinton | 

    @15:

    That would be a good angle for a HuffPo v2.0 post. Just sayin’.

  20. #20 |  André | 

    Minimum wage in Louisiana is $7.25 per hour. Assuming he works an 1,900 hour year (for 47.5 weeks at 40 hours per week, which allows for a couple days of vacation and federal holidays, no overtime) multiplied by 14 years, that is $192,850 before taxes. After 14 years in the slammer because they either were grossly incompetent or decided they’d rather convict an innocent man than let the crime remain unsolved, $150,000 is like spitting in his face. This ruling saddens me.

    In closing:

    “[U]nless you are an American Indian or a descendant of slaves, at some point your ancestors chose to leave their homeland in search of a better life. They weren’t traitors and they weren’t bad people, they just wanted a
    better life for themselves and their families.

    Isn’t it time that you continue their journey?”

  21. #21 |  Z | 

    @16: It just might but I’m in a Ph.D. pie eating contest :)

    @17: No way dude! Lets all watch American Idol and have some cheetos!

  22. #22 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    #12: Actually, that was Kennedy. :-)

  23. #23 |  croaker | 

    @12 @19 And the quote I was thinking of @2

  24. #24 |  Radley Balko | 

    The majority consisted of Scalia, Alito, Thomas, Roberts and Kennedy. There was no “ideologically right-left” union here. It was the five people most in favor of using government power to control the population and least in favor of using government power to empower the population.

    Oh, bullshit. Scalia and Thomas are better than the most liberal justices on criminal justice issues at least about half the time. And the Court’s left wing has no problem at all using government to “control the population”, and can hardly be exalted for sticking up for the powerless. See Kelo. And Raich.

  25. #25 |  InMD | 

    At #24/Radley

    I think it’s a pretty big exaggeration to say that Thomas and Scalia are better than the liberal justices on criminal justice issues more than half the time (granted I would dispute the notion that there are any actual liberal justices on the court with the departures of Souter and Stevens). The only criminal justice issue I can think of where Scalia has been consistently and solidly on the side of civil liberties is the right to confrontation.

    That doesn’t mean that all of their decisions on every issue are bad but it’s hard to think of any two justices, Scalia in particular, who have argued more for chipping away at 4th and 5th Amendment protection and deferring to the executive branch in matters of law enforcement.

  26. #26 |  fwb | 

    And of course this is another case of a bunch of idiotic folks in black robes sitting in their chairs playing with their balls and coming up with ass-inine results. In our system of government, the people hold all sovereignty. The government holds none except that given by the people. As most literate folks can note, few if any of the constitutions in the several states contain mentions of sovereign immunity. The idea of sovereign immunity is an archaic part of government that was tossed out with the bath water by the Framers. BUT those in power do all they can to alter our system from what it is to what the old systems were, taking us backward to a time when folks ruled by divine providence.

    This is not new. The People have not had a proper government ever. Not even the first seated bunch followed the Constitution. The concept appears to be so incredulous to them that they can’t put their minds around it. They, those in government, have this trouble because everyone of them desires absolute power over everyone else.

  27. #27 |  Windy | 

    Tho I cannot again find the article (which I just saw a link and comment on at facebook), apparently in the liberty Dollars trial, the prosecution gave the defense a huge number of documents the day before (day of?) the trial and the judge refused the defense a continuance to go thru those documents.

  28. #28 |  Z | 

    Radley

    Can you name 3 decisions from those 5 justices which enhanced individual rights in cases where doing so went against government interests and did not involve either guns or the economic wishes of the economically powerful? (i.e. Citizens Union doesn’t count.) Kelo is one.

    The Raich majority included both Kennedy and Scalia by the way.

  29. #29 |  Z | 

    Oh yeah the Supremes took up the Wal Mart class action case from the 9th Circuit. Whatever its merits, I will make the same prediction here that I did when the Thompson case was accept. The employees will lose. Probably by 5-4. Probably the same 5 as here.

  30. #30 |  Z | 

    *was accepted.

  31. #31 |  Eddie | 

    What troubles me about SCOTUS cases like this (and all 5-4 rulings) is how rarely 9 of the supposedly greatest legal minds in the US are unable to come a consensus when intepreting a law.

    I mean, basically a coin flip is deciding so many important cases. You’d think these people would agree on things more often!

  32. #32 |  sigh | 

    “I am not going to suggest what Thompson should do, since I don’t want to banned from this site.”

    Me neither. But I hope someone shows him how to weld and operate a bulldozer.

    This ruling is disgusting. It’s like they’re not even trying anymore.

  33. #33 |  Z | 

    Here’s a case the supremes won’t take up. Border searches that take days and take place nearly 200 miles from the border? No problem!

    http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2011/03/30/09-10139.pdf

  34. #34 |  CyniCAl | 

    Thanks Maggie, I stand corrected.

  35. #35 |  CyniCAl | 

    “The People have not had a proper government ever.”

    100% agreed, fwb. The only proper government is anarchy, also known as individual sovereignty.

  36. #36 |  supercat | 

    //I’d suggest that we need a constitutional amendment making clear that absolute immunity doesn’t exist and laying out the boundaries of qualified immunity, but that seems so unlikely to happen that wishing it would happen would be just as effective as asking our “representatives” to make it happen.//

    If the Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land, then no member of government has authority to violate it. Any statute which would appear to grant government agents the authority to violate the Constitution with impunity would be illegitimate, in at least those aspects.

  37. #37 |  Leonson | 

    Meh, this was an end-run around the prosecutor immunity bit anyhow.

    The law/decision that was wrong was the individual prosecutor immunity. This decision actually makes sense as far as I’m concerned.

  38. #38 |  Joe | 

    I can’t even start to say how much that sucks.

  39. #39 |  Garry | 

    I forget, what box comes after the jury box?

  40. #40 |  Toastrider | 

    “The only proper government is anarchy, also known as individual sovereignty.”

    Ideally, yes.

    Realistically, there are people out there that I don’t trust with a plastic shovel, a bucket, and a pile of sand to play in.

  41. #41 |  Dana | 

    Well this is great the next step to everybody living in what’s known as a police state society. So God help anybody that happens to make anybody in law enforcement mad at them. They now have free reign to make your life a living hell and there is nothing you can do about it. Just like was mentioned with the guy in this story he was almost executed for a crime he didn’t even commit. Most people won’t care because it wasn’t happening to them but what will they say when next time it is your turn. How are they going to feel when they are the one that is on death row or had 15 years of their life stolen because they made the wrong person mad.

  42. #42 |  Debi | 

    As I said for many years now people will begin to take the law into their own hands and get instant justice

  43. #43 |  Debi | 

    And of course that is not the way to take care of this problem hopefully this is not what it comes down to, I pray anyway.

  44. #44 |  Art | 

    This ruling is a tragedy.

    The state legislature ought to remedy this.

    The lawyers who sat on that evidence ought to be disbarred.

    Another bad decision from the same court which gave us the Dred Scott decision and Roe vs. Wade.

  45. #45 |  Don’t Confuse Us With Facts « The Honest Courtesan | 

    [...] or executed.  Furthermore, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled (in a case involving former New Orleans district attorney Harry Connick) that even if a prosecutor maliciously hides exculpatory evidence, and even if this monstrous act [...]

  46. #46 |  This is why I’m starting to oppose the death penalty » Gator In The Desert | 

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  47. #47 |  An Active Newt » Right Thinking | 

    [...] can be searched without a warrant based on the smell of marijuana; that prosecutors can not be sued for burying exculpatory evidence; that the sound of a toilet flushing justifies a search. They have [...]

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