Justice Sonia Sotomayor quickly established her presence on the Supreme Court on the first day of her first term, asking dozens of detailed and specific questions in a case related to whether police can ever seek to question a suspect after he asks to speak with an attorney.
Justice Sotomayor, a former prosecutor used to handling criminal-procedure issues, had questions for both sides and spoke more than three dozen times - joining Justices Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens as the most vocal during oral arguments in a case involving the scope of the “Miranda warning.”
The specific issue at hand involved the admissibility of incriminating statements made by a convicted child molester years after he had first been questioned in the case. Attorneys for 51-year-old Michael Shatzer argued that a 2006 conviction in Maryland for sexually abusing his son should stay thrown out because he told investigators three years earlier that he was asserting his Miranda rights.
Armed with new evidence, police came back to question Shatzer after that lengthy gap; this time, he waived his rights and talked to police. His attorneys say that even approaching him the second time violated his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Maryland’s highest court agreed with Shatzer’s attorneys and overturned his conviction, a decision the state is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In other action Monday, the court declined to hear several cases involving hot-button issues, such as priest sexual abuse, the Pledge of Allegiance and pro-life license plates.
In the Maryland case, Justice Sotomayor sharply questioned state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler about the purpose of a Miranda warning, which she said is to “tell the police they have to stop” questioning a suspect once he asserts his Miranda rights to remain silent and have an attorney present during questioning.
Mr. Gansler said the police aren’t required to find an attorney, a point with which Justice Sotomayor agreed, but she continued to press the advocate on how an assertion of Miranda rights limits what police can do.
Several justices, including Justice Sotomayor, reacted incredulously to some of the arguments from Shatzer’s attorney, Maryland public defender Celia Anderson Davis.
In answering a question about a hypothetical case posited by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., Ms. Davis said that a person who invoked Miranda rights during questioning related to a joy-riding case during 1999 could not be questioned again without an attorney in relation to a 2009 murder case.
“And you don’t think that’s a ridiculous application of the rules?” Justice Alito asked.
Justice Sotomayor followed up a short while later in the arguments, saying: “He is arrested for joy riding; he is let go; and you are saying that for 20, 40 years he is now immunized from being re-approached by the police?”
Ms. Davis said that was in fact the case.
“We will allow the police to come back if the suspect changes his or her mind or if an attorney is present,” she said. “And those two alternatives are available every day, and they are easy for the police to ascertain.”
Maryland’s attorneys disputed Ms. Davis’ argument, saying Shatzer’s incriminating statements should be allowed because he had not been kept in police custody between the interrogations, and a lengthy period of time elapsed between police questionings.
“There was no claim in the courts below, nor could there be, that police badgered Shatzer into giving a statement, or that Shatzer’s statement was not knowing and voluntary,” Mr. Gansler wrote in a brief submitted to the court.
Shatzer already had been serving a prison term in 2003 at Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown for molesting another child when police received information that he may also have sexually abused his 3-year-old son.
A Hagerstown police detective went to the prison to question Shatzer about the allegations, but Shatzer said he would not make a statement without an attorney present. The detective asked Shatzer to contact police once he obtained an attorney, but that never happened and the case was closed.
But two years and seven months later, another detective went to interview Shatzer after the now-6-year-old son provided new information about the abuse.
During that interrogation at Roxbury Correctional Institution, Shatzer agreed to waive his Miranda rights and speak with the detective. He then agreed to take a polygraph test a few days later, and he was advised of his Miranda rights again before the test began.
During the test, Shatzer broke down crying and said: “I didn’t force him. I didn’t force him.” After that, he asked for an attorney and the interview was stopped. He was later convicted of sexually abusing his son and sentenced to five years in prison. He remains incarcerated.
Also Monday, the high court declined to consider several cases, including:
• An appeal from a pro-life group that wanted to require Illinois to provide vanity license plates that stated “Choose Life.” The state opposed producing such license plates, which are available in 21 other states.
• A case in which Roman Catholic diocese in Bridgeport, Conn., had asked the court to keep secret court documents related to civil lawsuits stemming from the diocese’s scandal involving priests sexually abusing children.
• A challenge to a Florida law that required public school students to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance unless they receive parental permission to opt out.
• An attempt by former Qwest Communications head Joseph Nacchio to have his conviction for insider trading overturned, claiming his trial was unfair.
• An appeal from the U.S. government seeking to overturn a lower-court ruling that an oil company did not have to pay royalties on money made from drilling in deep water in the Gulf of Mexico. The federal government said applying the precedent in other means could cost the U.S. more than $19 billion in royalties.
Justice Sotomayor first participated in oral arguments last month during the rehearing of a case about whether a movie critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton ran afoul of campaign-finance laws, but the new justice spoke only a few times during those arguments.