Are the Courts Still Our Last Resort for Justice?

I ask, because the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Connick v. Thompson seems not just unjust, but strikes me as indifferent to justice.

From the Los Angeles Times:

A bitterly divided Supreme Court tossed out a jury verdict Tuesday won by a New Orleans man who spent 14 years on Death Row and came within weeks of execution because prosecutors had hidden a blood test and other evidence that would have proven his innocence.

The 5-4 decision delivered by Justice Clarence Thomas shielded the New Orleans District Attorney’s office from being held liable for the mistakes of its prosecutors. The evidence of their misconduct did not prove “deliberate indifference” on the part of then-District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., Thomas said.

Say what? How could this happen?

In rejecting the judgment, Justice Thomas described the case as a “single incident” where mistakes were made. He said Thompson did not prove a pattern of similar violations that would justify holding the city’s government liable for the wrongdoing. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined to form the majority.

But Thompson’s lawyers showed that at least four prosecutors knew of the blood test that was hidden. They also showed evidence of other similar cases in New Orleans where key evidence was concealed from defense lawyers.

I have to wonder – how much more evidence do courts need to satisfy these legal requirements? It seems that the standards are getting so high, no one could possibly win in court. And what is the point of having courts if injustices can’t be redressed?

I mean we’re talking about a man who was wrongfully convicted and was nearly executed by the state. Even if it’s just a “single incident,” it is so grave a single instance of injustice that it seems heartless to throw out the lower court’s ruling.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent – joined by Justices Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan –  is just dope and far more persuasive than the majority opinion. Check her out (emphasis mine, legal notation removed for clarity):

Based on the evidence presented, the jury could conclude that Brady* errors by untrained prosecutors would frequently cause deprivations of defendants’ constitutional rights. The jury learned of several Brady oversights in Thompson’s trials and heard testimony that Connick’s Office had one of the worst Brady records in the country…Because prosecutors faced considerable pressure to get convictions…and were instructed to “turn over what was required by state and federal law, but no more,” … the risk was all too real that they would err by withholding rather than revealing information favorable to the defense.

In sum, despite JUSTICE SCALIA’s protestations to the contrary…the Brady violations in Thompson’s prosecutions were not singular and they were not aberrational. They were just what one would expect given the attitude toward Brady pervasive in the District Attorney’s Office. Thompson demonstrated that no fewer than five prosecutors—the four trial prosecutors and Riehlmann—disregarded his Brady rights. He established that they kept from him, year upon year, evidence vital to his defense. Their conduct, he showed with equal force, was a foreseeable consequence of lax training in, and absence of monitoring of, a legal requirement fundamental to a fair trial.

Sounds like a pattern to me, what with the “one of the worst Brady records in the country” part.

But with the majority’s decision in this case, the Troy Davis case earlier this week, and past decisions like Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, it is clear that there is a pattern of this Supreme Court making it really hard for regular people to access the courts and, if they do, making it nearly impossible to win their cases.


*Note: “Brady” refers to a previous Supreme Court decision in Brady v. Maryland (1963).  The Court held in Brady that the prosecutor must disclose evidence or information that would prove the innocence of the defendant – or reduce the defendant’s sentence.