April 17, 2006

Picture buttons at a murder trial.

Does it violate the rights of a criminal defendant if the jurors see family members in court wearing buttons with a picture of the victim? The Supreme Court has decided to hear the case.
[Mathew] Musladin contends he shot Tom Studer in self-defense in 1994. Appeals court Judge Stephen Reinhardt said the buttons sent the message that Studer was the victim and Musladin the attacker.

IN THE COMMENTS: A lot of people think the defendant's rights were violated, but I write:
You need to take into account that the 9th Circuit was looking at a habeas petition, which was governed by the limitations created by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which permits relief only if the state court's decision was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." It's not enough that allowing the buttons violated the defendant's rights, even if it was not harmless error. You have to look at the existing Supreme Court cases -- which include nothing specifically on point -- and say the judge was unreasonable to [have] interpreted them to permit the buttons.

Seen this way, it seems clear that the Supreme Court will have to reverse.

22 comments:

PatCA said...

"Appeals court Judge Stephen Reinhardt said the buttons sent the message that Studer was the victim and Musladin the attacker."

That's the key. I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me it's another advocacy ruling that will be overturned. There's no evidence the jurors saw the buttons or that, if they had, they would have had any role in reaching the verdict.

chuck b. said...

People of the future will comb flea markets and stalk Ebay rummaging for murder buttons.

MadisonMan said...

How about handbills? Are they okay? Leaflets? Fliers? Posters? Exactly where does one draw a line here?

I would prefer a jury focus on testimony, not on distracting items scattered throughout the courtroom. If the buttons make no difference, then they aren't needed in the courtroom

SippicanCottage said...

It's become a fad here in Boston for gang members to sit in the galleries in courtrooms wearing shirts emblazoned with "stop snitchin'" on them.

I think we need to put a stop to any demonstrations of any kind inside a courtroom.

Bissage said...

Here's my confession: I'm amazed the trial judge allowed the buttons in the first place.

HaloJonesFan said...

Bissage: I completely agree. I can't see it as anything but an obvious attempt to influence the jury, and a clear violation of the rights of the accused.

stealthlawprof said...

I have little doubt that the trial judge could insist that people sitting in the courtroom not wear buttons -- or distribute leaflets or wear T-shirts with messages (or jackets, see Cohen v. California). Whether the trial judge MUST exclude people wearing messages is another question.

Whether the trial judge MUST do so if the defense fails to object is yet another question (that may or may not be raised by this case).

I might be sympathetic to the claim if the defendant objected, but my initial reaction is to doubt that this should qualify as plain error, i.e., a problem so obvious that the trial judge should have realized it and redressed it without the defense raising any objection.

Wurly said...

Given that the Ninth Circuit panel was deeply divided, and the majority opinion was by Judge Reinhardt (who has been reversed at least twice already this term), I expect a unanimous, per curiam reversal by the Supreme Court.

teddy_kgb said...

The objection to the buttons was properly preserved at the trial level. See Musladin v. Lamarque, 427 F.3d 653, 655 (9th Cir. 2005).

Ann Althouse said...

You need to take into account that the 9th Circuit was looking at a habeas petition, which was governed by the limitations created by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which permits relief only if the state court's decision was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." It's not enough that allowing the buttons violated the defendant's rights, even if it was not harmless error. You have to look at the existing Supreme Court cases -- which include nothing specifically on point -- and say the judge was unreasonable to interpreted them to permit the buttons. That was the basis of the dissent. This makes it a much harder call.

stealthlawprof said...

Moving from the hypothetical to the actual case, as teddy-kgb notes, the objection was preserved at trial. However, as the three court of appeals dissents (one on the panel; two from the denial of en banc review) note, the statutory limits on habeas corpus now require the petitioner to show the state courts have failed to follow established U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

Judge Reinhardt's opinion does not make a plausible claim that the state courts did so. Instead, Judge Reinhardt argues that the California Court of Appeal accepted as authoritative but then misapplied a Ninth Circuit decision.

That seems a much harder position to get the Supreme Court to accept, as the three dissents argue.

stealthlawprof said...

Ann -- My typing is way too slow. You got the point out well ahead of me. I suppose this is what I get for dabbling in an interesting Criminal Procedure question even though I have not done much in the area for years.

teddy_kgb said...

Three dissents? Were there two more from the denial of rehearing en banc?

Jim H said...

The trial judge should not have allowed the spectators to wear the buttons. But Professor Althouse is correct. It's a high standard to overcome to have a habeas petition granted, and there isn't any clearly established federal law. The Supreme Court hasn't examined the specific issue until now.

There isn't much case law period. I've looked because I briefed this issue for the prosecution not long ago. In that particular case the claim was unpreserved and the appellate court had little to review. Lanham v. Commonwealth, 171 S.W.3d 14, 32 (Ky. 2005).

I'll be interested in reading the Supreme Court opinion in Musladin

stealthlawprof said...

Teddy-kgb -- Yes. Three dissents. Judge Thompson wrote a dissent from the panel decision. Judge Kleinfeld and Judge Bea each wrote dissents from the denial of rehearing en banc. Kleinfeld was joined by Kozinski, O'Scannlain, Tallman, Bybee, Callahan, and Bea. Bea was joined by Kozinski, O'Scannlain and Kleinfeld (but not Tallman, Bybee, or Callahan).

J said...

I'm with patca. Judge Reinhardt's record is pretty consistent, though he might beat the spread if the reversal isn't unanimous.

MadisonMan said...

IANAL -- so the problem is that the defense attorney did not object to the button-wearing. If he had, and the judge hadn't cleared the buttons, that would be a problem.

I guess my question would be then, if the defense didn't care, why does the judge? If I'm ever tried, I'll make sure the courtroom is filled with people wearing clothes as bland as Walgreen Drugstore Architecture. And no buttons.

Daryl Herbert said...

IANAL -- so the problem is that the defense attorney did not object to the button-wearing.

Nope. See Teddy KBG's comment ("The objection to the buttons was properly preserved at the trial level.") As far as I understand that sentence, it means the defendant's lawyers objected in an appropriate manner at an appropriate time, and the judge ruled against the defendant.

Justin said...

So its okay this guy spends his life in jail, even though he didn't get a fair trial, because...state courts suck? Because the Supreme Court can't take enough cases to effectively police them?

I understand the limited habeus review, but isn't this a perfect case as to why we should read that restriction as narrowly as possible?

Ann Althouse said...

Justin: How far can AEDPA be stretched? Even if one is inclined to read it to favor the enforcement of rights over the interests in finality, there's only so far you can go without making a mockery of the statutory text. It's Congress that is to blame for this, not the Court.

dick said...

If the murder occurred in 1994 when did the original case happen? Would the 1996 law apply to a 1994 or 1995 trial in the first place? I am not getting just when these things happened and whether the laws passed after the trial would apply to the trial itself. I am not a lawyer but I would think that laws passed after the fact would not apply or am I completely wrong.

Ann Althouse said...

Dick: The new law is the habeas statute, and question is whether the habeas was filed before the new statute took effect (which was 1996). A habeas case is a new proceeding, different from the original trial, and the habeas statute is a jurisdiction statute defining the role of the federal courts in requiring a new trial after the state proceeding has become final. The new approach to habeas under the statute gives respect to the state judge who had to look at the Supreme Court cases that were available at the time.