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Monday, April 29, 2013

Supreme Court majority rewrites facts to avoid deciding constitutional right to a speedy trial in Boyer v. Louisiana

Jonathan Boyer spent seven years in jail waiting for his day in court. Why? Because, as the Louisiana Court of Appeal found, the state refused to adequately fund legal counsel for indigent defendants due to a “funding crisis.” The Louisiana court, although attributing the seven-year delay to the state, ruled that the funding crisis was beyond the government’s control, and thus Boyer’s constitutional right to a speedy trial was not violated. After waiting most of a decade to get into court, Mr. Boyer was convicted after a trial lasting only one week.

Justice Samuel Alito
The Supreme Court agreed to hear Mr. Boyer’s appeal. Today, rather than rule on whether a defendant who is left to rot in jail for years because a state refused to adequately fund indigent defense counsel has been denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial, a conservative majority of the Court simply revised the factual premise of the case. Although the Supreme Court is usually bound to defer to the factual findings of lower courts, Justice Alito – contrary to the findings of the Louisiana court – defended the Supreme Court’s decision to avoid the case by writing that the defendant, rather than the state, was responsible for the delay. In a passage contorting the boundaries of logic, Justice Alito wrote:
The dissent would ignore what the record plainly shows based largely on the Louisiana Court of Appeals’ observation that “[t]he majority of the seven-year delay was caused by the ‘lack of funding.’” . . . But when this statement is read in context, what it most likely means is not that the delay in question was caused by the State’s failure to provide funding but simply that the delay was attributable to the funding issue. And as noted, most of this delay was caused by the many defense requests for continuances of hearings on the issue of funding. If the defense had not sought and obtained those continuances, the trial might well have commenced at a much earlier date—and might  have reached a conclusion far less favorable to the defense.
In other words, it isn’t the state’s fault for inadequately funding indigent defense; it’s the defendant’s fault for daring to challenge the inadequate funding. It is unclear what options are left to the defendant in this situation; should the defendant simply accept shamefully underfunded representation?

Indigent criminal defendants already face daunting obstacles to fair process in our justice system, including overburdened public defenders, lack of sufficient resources to mount a vigorous defense, and a high legal bar to showing constitutionally inadequate counsel. Denial of the right to speedy trial compounds these issues by making it harder to identify, locate, and employ witnesses and evidence at trial. Yet today, rather than stand up for the due process rights of indigent Americans, the Supreme Court chose to bend the facts and add to that burden.

As Justice Sotomayor noted in dissent:
Where a State has failed to provide funding for the defense and that lack of funding causes a delay, the defendant cannot reasonably be faulted. Placing the consequences of such a delay squarely on the State’s shoulders is proper for the simple reason that an indigent defendant has no control over whether a State has set aside funds to pay his lawyer or fund any necessary investigation. . . . States routinely make tradeoffs in the allocation of limited resources, and it is reasonable that a State bear the consequences of these choices.

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