- The Washington Times - Monday, October 5, 2009

The Supreme Court began its new term Monday by rejecting several cases, including one attempting to force Illinois to issue “Choose Life” license plates, and pondering how long a suspect’s request for a lawyer should be considered valid.

The high court rejected the case by the anti-abortion group Choose Life Illinois Inc., which leaves in place a federal appeals court ruling that states Illinois officials were within their rights in trying to keep viewpoints on abortion off plates.

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In listening to the first arguments of the session, regarding a suspect’s rights, the high court seemed skeptical of defense lawyers’ position that police should be banned from talking to a suspect without a lawyer present because of the possibility that the suspect had asked for a lawyer in related — and even unrelated — cases years ago.

Michael Shatzer was imprisoned at the Maryland Correctional Institution for child sexual abuse in 2003 when police questioned him about allegations that he sexually abused his 3-year-old young son. When Mr. Shatzer refused to talk to a police officer and asked for a lawyer, the questioning ended and the case was dropped.

In 2006, Mr. Shatzer’s son was old enough to offer details. When a different police officer approached Mr. Shatzer in prison about the allegations two years and seven months later, Mr. Shatzer waived his Miranda rights, made incriminating statements, failed a polygraph test and was eventually convicted.

Lower courts threw out his confession because he asked for an attorney when he was first questioned in 2003.

Justice Samuel Alito asked Mr. Shatzer’s lawyer, public defender Celia Davis, if her interpretation of the law meant police can’t talk to a suspect who asked for a lawyer when being questioned about joy-riding in 1999, but is arrested for murder in 2009.

“Yes, it does,” she replied.

“You don’t think that’s a ridiculous application of the rule?” Justice Alito said.

Ms. Davis said the request for a lawyer should apply even if 40 years later the person is a suspect in a civil rights violation that related to the murder.

“You’re saying for 40 years, he’s immunized from being approached by police?” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was sitting in on her first regular argument as a Supreme Court justice.


Justice Sotomayor was confirmed for the high court this summer, replacing retired Justice David Souter. Though she’s the newest justice, Justice Sotomayor peppered the arguing lawyers with as many questions as her eight more experienced colleagues, although a couple of times she forgot to turn her microphone on and had to repeat her questions.

Justice Sotomayor even jockeyed to get in her questions at the same time as Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — the court’s other female justice — though both times she deferred to the more experienced justice.

The justices seemed to have differing opinions on how to solve the problem.

Justice John Paul Stevens suggested setting a rule that prisoners do not have to talk to police, and if they do they are waiving their Miranda rights. Other justices suggesting setting a time limit on how long a request for a lawyer should be valid.

Justice Alito asked Ms. Davis if she had a suggestion for a time limit.

“Anything over two years and seven months,” she said, prompting laughter from the justices and the crowd in the packed courtroom.

The other cases rejected Monday by the Supreme Court were:

• An appeal to review a Florida law that requires public school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance each day unless they have their parents’ written permission excusing them.

The nine justices also declined to hear an appeal filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida on behalf of a high school student removed from his math class because he remained seated during the pledge.

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A federal appeals court upheld most of the law. The ACLU said that ruling, if left undisturbed, would undermine the Supreme Court’s 1943 ruling that schoolchildren could not be forced to salute the flag and say the pledge.

Florida argued that the law, by giving parents the right to have their children excused, does not violate the First Amendment.

• A request to block the release of documents generated by lawsuits against priests in Connecticut for alleged sexual abuse.

The request was made by the Roman Catholic diocese in Bridgeport, Conn. Several newspapers are seeking the release of more than 12,000 pages from 23 lawsuits against six priests.

The records have been under seal since the diocese settled the cases in 2001. Courts in Connecticut have ruled that the papers should be made public.

• A dispute between breakaway Episcopalians and their former national church over who owns a California church and its property.

The request to hear the case was made by St. James Anglican Church, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. It is one of several dozen individual parishes and four dioceses nationwide that voted to split from the national church after the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire.

California courts have ruled that St. James had the right to split off from the larger church but could not take parish property with it even though the parish has held the deed to the church for decades.

The Episcopal Church has argued that its rules bar anyone from walking away with denomination property, which often includes large endowments and land worth millions of dollars. The conservatives who want to separate say they have spent years, even decades, spending money to maintain and improve the buildings.

St. James is now allied with an Anglican diocese in Uganda.

• A lobbying group’s challenge to Florida’s strict lobbying ethics law.

In 2005, the state banned lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators and other elected officials. It also required them to file disclosure statements stating who pays them and how much.

If a Florida lobbyist doesn’t comply or someone complains, lawmakers can investigate and punish lobbyists with up to a two-year suspension and a $5,000 fine.

Lobbyists unsuccessfully challenged the law in an Atlanta federal appeals court, arguing that requiring them to disclose their employers violated privacy and equal protection rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

• Former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio’s appeal of his insider-trading conviction.

The court said it would not entertain Mr. Nacchio’s request that he either be acquitted of the charge or granted a new trial.

Prosecutors said Mr. Nacchio sold $52 million worth of stock in 2001 while knowing that Denver-based Qwest Communications International Inc. would have trouble meeting its sales goals.

Mr. Nacchio began serving a six-year sentence on April 14. He contended the jury was given improper instructions about what internal information had to be disclosed publicly. He also argued that the trial judge improperly barred testimony from an expert who could have explained Mr. Nacchio’s trading patterns.

• A Kentucky sheriff who fired a deputy who publicly disclosed his intentions to challenge the sheriff in an election.

The high court decline to consider whether the dismissal violated the deputy’s civil rights. Lower courts had ruled in the sheriff’s favor.

In 2005, Sheriff Paul Parsley of Bullitt County, Ky., fired Deputy Sheriff David Greenwall after newspapers published stories about his candidacy.

The appeal attempted to test whether the First Amendment protects public employees who seek to challenge their boss at the polls.

Mr. Parsley lost the Democratic primary and Mr. Greenwell, a Republican, lost the general election.

• The government’s appeal of a ruling in favor of the Anadarko Petroleum Corp. involving eight deep-water leases the company holds in the Gulf of Mexico. A federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled the Interior Department could not collect royalties from the leases, even as oil prices increased and companies began posting huge profits.

The Obama administration has said the appeals court ruling will cost taxpayers at least $19 billion in royalties on energy leases in the gulf.

The case centers on a 1995 law that gave oil and natural gas producers a break from paying royalties at a time when energy prices were extremely low. The law waived all royalty payments until a specific amount of oil and gas was produced.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan told the court the Interior Department has the authority to lift the royalty relief once prices reach a certain level.

The ruling could affect other leases and prohibit the government from collecting royalties from other producers.

The company said the 1995 law spurred energy exploration in the gulf and brought in billions of dollars. The law applies only to a small and rapidly diminishing number of leases, the company said in urging the court to turn down the case.

• A convicted killer in Illinois who said prosecutors focused the jury’s attention on the fact he never testified on his own behalf.

The high court kept in place the conviction and sentence of Dr. Ronald Mikos, a foot doctor who was facing allegations of Medicare fraud. He was sentenced to death in 2005 on charges that he shot a disabled nurse, who also was a former patient, to keep her from testifying against him.

Defense lawyers said prosecutors told the jury the doctor’s decision not to testify showed a lack of remorse for what he did. During the penalty phase, the jury said the doctor’s lack of remorse contributed to the decision to sentence him to death.

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