SCOTUS News, 6/25/17: Maslenjak; Criminals’ Rights

Opinions are flying as we approach the end of the term. SCOTUS released three opinions on Thursday, and another three on Friday. Today, we’ll look at the three released on Thursday.

Weaver v. Massachusetts

In Weaver’s original trial, two days of jury selection in the courtroom were not open to the public. The courtroom was filled to capacity with potential jurors, and no one else could fit inside. Nevertheless, Weaver claimed that Masschusetts infringed his right to a public trial. Weaver claimed ineffective assistance of counsel, because his attorney never raised the issue.

Before SCOTUS intervened, the lower courts declared that this error did not produce a fundamentally unfair trial result. Nor did it violate Weaver’s Sixth Amendment rights. This is a structural error. Part of the trial did not proceed as it should have, but had no demonstrable effect on the outcome. And Weaver’s attorney thought the closed courtroom during jury selection was constitutional. It is not, SCOTUS points out. But to prove ineffective assistance of counsel, more is required. A defendant must show that their attorney prejudiced the trial outcome, and in this case, that is not so clear.

The Justices rule against Weaver’s arguments. Kennedy writes for the majority, joined by Roberts, Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Gorsuch. An improperly closed trial can still be fundamentally “fair” if no harm against the defendant can be asserted. The Justices also point out that Weaver did not raise the public trial violation on direct review. Instead, he made the ineffective assistance of counsel claim much later.

Thomas writes an additional concurrence, joined by Gorsuch, adding his uncertainty about whether the error in the original trial was enough to make the trial “unfair”. Alito writes a separate concurrence (also joined by Gorsuch), and shows additional skepticism about Weaver’s claim of a “structural error”.

Breyer dissents, joined by Kagan, stating that any structural error is enough to warrant relief for a defendant.

Turner v. United States

This case concerned withheld evidence at a criminal trial. Petitioners (Turner et al.) perpetrated a group robbery/murder. They were convicted at trial, but some evidence, mostly witness testimony, was withheld. This withheld evidence was not material, however. It consisted of inaccurate or unreliable statements from some witnesses. Many other witnesses gave testimony that left no doubt about the culpability of the defendants. The defendants themselves seemed to throw each other under the bus whenever one took the witness stand. In light of these facts, SCOTUS rules the same as the lower courts. The withheld evidence was not material, and would not have changed the trial’s outcome.

Kagan dissents, joined by Ginsburg. She concurs with the majority’s analysis of the evidence itself, but she rejects the idea that the trial would not have been substantially different if the withheld evidence had been presented. She notes the very likely possibility that defendants could have constructed a different case based on the guilt of a separate individual, an individual mentioned repeatedly in the suppressed statements. If the case had proceeded in this way, the jury verdict may have been different. This difference satisfies the test for materiality of evidence.

Maslenjak v. United States

Maslenjak came to the United States from Bosnia during the conflict there some twenty years ago. She contacted an American immigration official, and applied for refugee status. Many years later, the government discovered that she had lied during those long-ago interviews. The government rescinded Maslenjak’s citizenship when her false statements were discovered. But those statements did not play a direct role in the government’s decision to grant citizenship. This is a key detail, and a cornerstone of the way citizenship works, Kagan writes for the majority. If no illegal act contributed to getting citizenship, then citizenship was not gained illegally.

Kagan notes an element of the relevant laws that “willful misrepresentations made [from] embarrassment, fear, or a desire for privacy” are not enough to discard someone’s otherwise lawfully obtained citizenship. Maslenjak lied about crimes committed by her husband during the war, but these lies themselves would not be enough to deny her citizenship. The Court also states that the government gave improper jury instructions in the original case. They vacate and remand to allow for a correction of these issues.

Gorsuch, joined by Thomas, concurs in part and concurs with the judgment. Their main difference is a greater desire to trust the Circuit Courts and the precedents they have already established for determining legality of citizenship applications in other similar cases. Alito concurs separately, reiterating the need for citizenship to be revoked only when a false statement is material to the procurement of naturalization.

The Crowd and the Algorithm

Both the Crowd and the Algorithm expected more of a split on the Maslenjak case. The breadth of case law already on the books about citizenship revocation and materiality made this an easy call for the Justices, though.

Meanwhile, in the Turner and Weaver cases, the Algorithm scored more accurately. Both are relatively narrow rulings on defendants’ rights, which tends to bring out the Court’s ideological split. That alone makes some sense out of the Crowd’s predictions.


Turner v. United States


Weaver v. Massachusetts


We will post another update tomorrow regarding the three cases released last Friday. Here’s a look at the updated scoreboard until then:

Crowd: 49/59 cases; Accuracy Rate: 83.05%
{Marshall}+: 36/59 cases; Accuracy Rate: 61.01%

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