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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Chief Justice says what he really thinks

When I hear or read a particularly sharp or sarcastic comment, I often say "Don't sugar-coat it; tell us how you really feel". And today, I say that to Chief Justice John Roberts.

Yesterday the Supreme Court released its opinion, written by Roberts, in Foster v. Chatman, a heartbreaking case about an African-American man in Georgia convicted of murder after prosecutors systematically removed all African-Americans from the jury pool. Quotes from Roberts' opinion:

  • "Despite questions about the background of particular notes, we cannot accept the State’s invitation to blind ourselves to their existence."
  • "On their face, [the prosecutor's] justifications for the strike seem reasonable enough. Our independent examination of the record, however, reveals that much of the reasoning provided by [him] has no grounding in fact. [His] misrepresentations to the trial court began with an elaborate explanation of how he ultimately came to strike Garrett."
  • "[The prosecutor] had described [a potential juror's] conviction to the trial court as being for 'basically the same thing that this defendant is charged with.' Nonsense."
  • "'If a prosecutor's proffered reason for striking a black panelist applies just as well to an otherwise-similar nonblack [panelist] who is permitted to serve, that is evidence tending to prove purposeful discrimination.' With respect to both [prospective jurors], such evidence is compelling. But that is not all. There are also the shifting explanations, the misrepresentations of the record, and the persistent focus on race in the prosecution's file."
  • "The contents of the prosecution’s file, however, plainly belie the State's claim that it exercised its strikes in a 'color-blind' manner."
  • "This argument falls flat. To begin, it 'reeks of afterthought'."
  • "Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows."
That's as blunt as an appellate judge gets. I guess the Chief Justice won't be getting a Christmas card from the prosecutor in this case, who has been implicated in other misconduct. Folks, please be careful when you vote in local elections like the DA. The mess that an incompetent or malicious DA makes will inflict pain on many people and can take years to remedy. I've written about this before.

The Court voted 7-1 to overturn the conviction. The outlier is Justice Clarence Thomas, the only African-American on the Court. His written dissent provoked direct criticism from the Chief Justice in the Court's opinion. This is the type of situation that leads even a political centrist to conclude that putting Justice Thomas on the Court was a big mistake.

One more thing: the original trial was held in 1987, and it has been bouncing around appellate courts since. Why did it take so long for justice to be attained? During the first round of appeals, the defendant's lawyers did not have access to the prosecutor's notes. In 2002 Georgia adopted its Open Records Act. Only then could the defendant's lawyers, still striving for a fair trial, discover the "smoking guns" in the prosecutor's notes. These smoking guns eventually attracted the attention of the Supreme Court. And folks, this is just another reason why open records laws are so important.

Did the defendant, Timothy Foster, actually commit murder? Maybe, but that's not the point. He deserves a fair trial. And if a representative jury finds him guilty, he deserves to be incarcerated for the rest of his life.