August 17, 2010

Private: Bipartisan Group of Former Prosecutors Urges High Court to Uphold Jury Verdict in Prosecutorial Immunity Case

Brady v. Maryland, Connick v. Thompson, Pamela Karlan, Paul D. Clement, U.S.C. Sec. 1983

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A bipartisan group of former senior Department of Justice attorneys and other federal prosecutors recently lodged an amicus brief with the Supreme Court urging it to leave intact a Louisiana jury verdict against prosecutors who withheld evidence in a case that produced a murder conviction. The unique collaboration of the DOJ and federal prosecutors maintains in its friend-of-the-court brief filed in Connick v. Thompson that prosecutors should be responsible for ensuring that constitutional rights are not subverted in the process of securing convictions. The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Connick early in its forthcoming term, which starts on Oct. 4. 

In the Connick case, a jury awarded John Thompson $14 million, in part, because prosecutors withheld evidence to help secure his murder conviction. Thompson spent 18 years in prison and had come close to being executed before he was acquitted in a retrail. Following his acquittal, Thompson sued Harry F. Connick, who led the district attorney's office at the time Thompson was convicted in 1985. (Connick is the father Harry Connick Jr., the Grammy-award winning singer.) The New Orleans district attorney's office has fought the jury award, arguing that it should not be liable for the actions of prosecutors in the case. As The Associated Press noted, the Supreme Court has "approved only narrow instances in which local government agencies can be sued for wrongdoing of their rank-and-file employees."

Thompson's attorneys have argued that prosecutors violated his rights pursuant to federal law, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, which requires prosecutors to discharge their duties in a manner that does not violate constitutional rights. In Supreme Court precedent regarding Sec. 1983, such as Brady v. Maryland, the high court held that withholding evidence is a violation of prosecutors' obligations. Thompson's legal action maintained that the New Orleans district attorney's office violated the federal law because it failed to train its prosecutors on avoiding Brady violations.

The coalition of former DOJ attorneys, in its amicus brief, states that its "interest is in ensuring that Section 1983 realizes its promise as a remedy for conduct that causes constitutional violations and that the balance of interests carefully struck by this Court's precedents is preserved. The Court's precedent with respect to section 1983 failure-to-train claims promotes respect for the rule of law by holding municipal entities to account when they demonstrate deliberate indifference to constitutional rights and cause constitutional violations. Although successful failure-to-train claims are, and should be, rare, their continued availability strengthens public respect for the criminal justice system, particularly against criticism that the system is indifferent (if not hostile) to the rights of those charged, especially those wrongly charged, with criminal acts."

The coalition includes former Assistant Attorneys General and Acting Assistant Attorneys General Bill Lann Lee and William Yeomans, both ACS participants. Counsel for the coalition of attorneys includes former Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, who served during the administration of President George W. Bush, and Stanford law school professor and ACS Board member Pamela S. Karlan. See the entire amicus brief here.

Oral argument in Connick v. Thompson is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010.


Access to Justice, Criminal Justice, Supreme Court