Looking ahead to the “long conference” – Part 3
In four weeks, the justices will meet for their “long conference,” at which they will consider the thousands of petitions for review that have accumulated since their last conference in late June. The justices will grant only a few of these petitions. This post is the third in a series taking a closer look at some of the petitions – here, all criminal cases – that have been distributed for the September 28 conference.
In Powers v. Alabama, an Alabama woman convicted of possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute it has asked the justices to weigh in on the constitutionality of the search that discovered the drugs.
Nancy Powers was asleep on the couch in the home of Joshua Moyers when the Mobile police arrived with a warrant to search the house for drugs. When the police officers executing the warrant searched Powers’ purse, which was on a table next to the couch, they found the drugs, a digital scale and cash.
Powers challenged the search of her purse, arguing that it violated the Fourth Amendment. The state trial court rejected that argument, and two state appeals courts – including the Alabama Supreme Court – upheld that ruling.
Powers came to the Supreme Court in May, asking the justices to decide whether the search was constitutional. The Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that visitors cannot be searched just because they are present when police execute a search warrant, she noted, but it has not yet decided the question at the heart of her case: whether police can search the belongings of someone who is visiting the place where a search warrant is being executed. Because the lower courts are using four different tests to answer this question, she argued, the court should take up her case to arrive at a unified approach.
The state urged the justices to deny Powers’ petition. It countered that the state supreme court applied exactly the test that Powers has offered – looking at all of the circumstances to determine whether the search was reasonable. But in any event, the state continued, the state courts would have reached the same result if they had applied a different test – and indeed, the state added, the real difference in the cases to which Powers points is not the tests that the lower courts apply, but instead the underlying facts, which lead to different results.
In Tyler v. Vannoy, a Louisiana inmate has asked the justices to decide whether the court’s 2018 ruling in McCoy v. Louisiana, holding that a defendant has the right under the Sixth Amendment to insist that his attorney not concede his guilt, applies to his case.
The question comes to the court in the case of James Tyler, who in 1996 was sentenced to death for the murder of one man and the shooting of two others during a robbery of a Pizza Hut restaurant. Tyler strongly disagreed with his lawyers’ decision to concede at trial that Tyler was guilty, and he asked the trial court to appoint new lawyers for him – a request that the court rejected. The trial went forward with Tyler’s original lawyers, who from his opening statement told the jury that Tyler had “indeed shot and killed Jock Efferson at the Pizza Hut.”
After the court issued its decision in McCoy, Tyler – whose conviction and sentence the state courts had affirmed – went back to court, seeking to have them overturned. Both the state courts and the lower federal courts rebuffed that argument, prompting Tyler to come to the Supreme Court in April.
The Speedy Trial Act, which requires the federal government to formally charge an individual with a crime within 30 days of his arrest, is the law at the center of Gottesfeld v. United States, in which a Massachusetts man has asked the justices to weigh in on an exception to the act, which stops the clock when a judge believes that the “ends of justice” require it.
Martin Gottesfeld was arrested in 2016 for his role in a cyberattack on the computer network at Boston Children’s Hospital, whose 2013 treatment of Justina Pelletier, a teenager, for psychiatric problems over the objection of her parents garnered national attention. Gottesfeld, who had publicly advocated for Pelletier to be released, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the cyberattack.
Gottesfeld was not indicted for several months after his 2016 arrest. When Gottesfeld asked a federal district judge to dismiss his indictment, the judge rejected that request, pointing to a series of continuances by a different district judge that, the second judge held, were justified to serve the “ends of justice.”
After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, Gottesfeld came to the Supreme Court. He urged the justices to decide whether, when the first judge had failed to explain why the continuances were necessary to serve the “ends of justice,” the second judge could make the findings needed to support the continuances. The 1st Circuit’s ruling that it could, Gottesfeld argued, conflicts with the rule in two other circuits.
The federal government told the justices that their intervention is not warranted. The courts of appeals, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote, have agreed that district courts do not need to “recite basic facts and circumstances” to support an “ends of justice” continuance when the facts are outlined in the motion for a continuance. In this case, Prelogar noted, the second district judge did not make his own findings, but instead simply reiterated what he “determined were the reasons for the findings of” the first judge.