Dispatches from the Creation Wars

One of the Worst Court Rulings Ever

Yesterday’s court ruling in Osborne was simply one of the most absurd and appalling rulings I have ever read. Chief Justice Roberts should be ashamed of himself. Because of his ruling, innocent men are going to die in prison or via the death penalty. It really is that simple. What is absolutely shocking about the ruling is how utterly dishonest it is. Roberts is usually a careful judge who at least can state the legal issue accurately. In this ruling, his portrayal of the facts and legal questions in the case is one dishonest statement after another. To wit:

DNA testing has an unparalleled ability both to exonerate the wrongly convicted and to identify the guilty. The availability of new DNA testing technologies, however, cannot mean that every criminal conviction, or even every criminal conviction involving biological evidence, is suddenly in doubt. The task of establishing rules to harness DNA’s power to prove innocence without unnecessarily overthrowing the established criminal justice system belongs primarily to the legislature.

In the very first sentence of his holding he admits that DNA testing can conclusively prove guilt or innocence in many cases. That will be important to remember a little later. But how about the blatantly dishonest statement of the legal issues at stake? No one is suggesting that “every criminal conviction is suddenly in doubt” or that providing due process in cases where DNA evidence is available requires “overthrowing the established criminal justice system.” He is plainly erecting a straw man to knock down, something routine in chatroom debates but far beneath a Supreme Court justice. And it only gets worse:

While Osborne does have a liberty interest in pursuing the postconviction relief granted by the State, the Ninth Circuit erred in extending the Brady right of pretrial disclosure to the postconviction context. Osborne has already been found guilty and therefore has only a limited liberty interest in postconviction relief.

So they admit that he has a liberty interest in accessing the evidence – obviously, for crying out loud, since his very liberty is at stake. But somehow that stake is diminished in Roberts’ mind once the trial takes place, even after admitting earlier that the DNA evidence could prove him innocent. This is an absolutely bizarre bit of thinking.

The majority of the court seems to think that due process is somehow entirely separate from questions of guilt or innocence. But that is not only nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense. We guarantee due process not only as a matter of principle but also for the purely pragmatic reason that it helps lead to the truth. If the point of the criminal justice system is not to distinguish guilt or innocence as accurately as humanly possible, then it’s time to scrap the entire system.

There is nothing inadequate about Alaska’s postconviction relief procedures in general or its methods for applying those procedures to persons seeking access to evidence for DNA testing. The State provides a substantive right to be released on a sufficiently compelling showing of new evidence that establishes innocence. It also provides for discovery in postconviction proceedings, and has–through judicial decision–specified that such discovery is available to those seeking access to evidence for DNA testing. These procedures are similar to those provided by federal law and the laws of other States, and they satisfy due process. The same is true for Osborne’s reliance on a claimed federal right to be released upon proof of “actual innocence.” Even assuming such a right exists, which the Court has not decided and does not decide, there is no due process problem, given the procedures available to access evidence for DNA testing.

A rather ironic statement in a case where the plaintiff is being denied access to evidence for DNA testing, don’t you think? “The system works perfectly, it allows access to DNA evidence. And the fact that it denied access to this man has no bearing on the validity of that previous statement.” This is absolutely ludicrous reasoning.

But perhaps worst of all:

There is no long history of a right of access to state evidence for DNA testing that might prove innocence. “The mere novelty of such a claim is reason enough to doubt that ‘substantive due process’ sustains it.”

Of course there’s no long history of a right to access DNA evidence for testing. You know why? Because we’ve only had DNA testing for a couple of decades.

Most Supreme Court rulings have at least minimally plausible arguments on both sides. The cases that reach the court have vexed the lower courts and are typically close calls. This one is not. This one is nothing short of vile and disgusting. Innocent people will die as a result of it. And none of the five justices who signed on to the majority opinion could possibly care any less. Shame on them.