Thursday, March 31, 2005

Certified Question From 9th Circuit

Bob Egelko of the SF Chronicle has this article on the 9th Circuit's recent request for the CA S. Ct. to clarify whether CA law would allow a lawsuit by a smoker diagnosed with tobacco-related illness years after becoming addicted. Such lawsuits are barred in federal court, where a 2002 ruling held that smokers must sue within 1 year of becoming addicted. CA appellate courts have rejected that ruling, but the CA Supreme Court has not yet addressed the issue.

No New Opinions

No new opinions were filed today. It has been 10 days since the Court has filed its last opinion. Perhaps Monday will bring some action.

The Court granted review in only 3 cases in yesterday's conference. All 3 were criminal cases. The complete conference results can be found here.

The minutes from the Court’s last conference, on March 22, can be found here.
Interesting note: the Court granted Prof. Erwin Chemerinsky’s application to appear as counsel pro hac vice on behalf of Johnson in the case Johnson v. Ford Motor Co. (S121723), which will be argued on April 7th in the Court’s upcoming Los Angeles session. The issue in Johnson is whether CA’s measure of punitive damages can be based on principles of general deterrence of wrongful conduct and/or disgorgement of profits, or whether punitive damages are limited, by the US Supreme Court’s State Farm v. Campbell decision, to the amount sufficient to punish the tortfeasor for the harm caused to the individual plaintiff.

The Court will hear arguments in 12 cases in its Los Angeles session (April 6-8). The complete schedule of oral arguments can be found here.

No New Opinions

No new opinions were filed today. It has been 10 days since the Court filed its most recent opinion. Perhaps Monday will bring some action.

In the meantime, the Court granted review in only 3 cases in yesterday's conference. All 3 were criminal cases. The complete conference results can be found here.

The minutes from the Court's last conference, on March 22, can be found here. Interesting note: the Court granted Prof. Erwin Chemerinsky's application to appear as counsel pro hac vice on behalf of Johnson in the case Johnson v. Ford Motor Co. (S121723), which will be argued on April 7th in the Court's upcoming LA session. The question in Johnson is whether CA's measure of punitive damages can be based on principles of general deterrence of wrongful conduct and/or disgorgement of profits, or whether punitive damages are limited, by the US Supreme Court's State Farm v. Campbell decision, to the amount sufficient to punish the tortfeasor for the harm caused to the individual plaintiff.

The Court will hear arguments in 12 cases in its LA session (April 6-8). The complete schedule of oral arguments can be found here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Today's news

The San Francisco Chronicle has another article today on the controversy surrounding a former Alameda County prosecutor who claims he colluded with a judge to regularly exclude Jews from capital case juries (see yesterday's posts). The article can be found here.

Court considers more prosecutor misconduct issues

A San Jose superior court is conducting a hearing today to investigate a former prosecutor's claim that he used peremptory challenges to keep Jews and black women off of capital case juries. The CA S. Ct. ordered the superior court to conduct this fact-finding as part of a defendant's appeal of his death sentence. Fred Freeman was sentenced to death in 1987 for the killing of a bar patron in Berkeley. Freeman's case was prosecuted by John Quatman. Quatman now claims he, and others in the Alameda County D.A.'s office, regularly kept Jews and black women off capital juries. Quatman has already had 2 previous murder convictions overturned because of misconduct. The Alameda County D.A.'s office denies the allegations.

CNN.com has this AP report.

The San Francisco Chronicle has been closely following this case, with articles here, here, here and here.

The fact-finding being conducted by the superior court is similar to that ordered by the CA S. Ct. in the case of In re Sakarias, where the Court last month overturned a death sentence based on prosecutor misconduct. In that case (discussed in posts last month), the Court appointed a referee to determine, among other things, which of a prosecutor's inconsistent statements was more likely true.

Today's news

The US Supreme Court let stand a CA S. Ct. ruling in a dispute between winemakers over CA's labeling law. Last summer, the CA S. Ct. upheld a CA law prohibiting winemakers from using a regional name like "Napa" on labels unless 75% of the grapes in the bottle actually came from that region. The makers of "Two Buck Chuck," who were on the losing end of these rulings, plan to further challenge the CA law on other constitutional grounds.

Annette Haddad of the LA Times has this story about the case.

The US Supreme Court also denied review in a CA tobacco case. In 1999 a jury awarded $51.5 million to a smoker on the theory that Philip Morris had lied about the risks and addictiveness of smoking. After a long road through the CA courts, the award was ultimately reduced to $10.5 million. In September, the CA S. Ct. refused to overturn the liability finding. Yesterday, the US Supreme Court declined to review that ruling.

Myron Levin of the LA Times has this report.

Monday, March 21, 2005

People v. Stitely

The Court unanimously upheld the death sentence imposed on Richard Stitely for the 1990 rape and murder of a San Fernando Valley woman. Stitely was sentenced to death for 1st degree murder with the special circumstance of murder during the commission of unlawful sodomy.

Stitely's automatic appeal seemed to raise no novel issues of law. Some interesting factual points:

Stitely, who was 41 at the time of the murder, could neither read nor write. Although he had no prior convictions, the evidence at trial showed that Stitely had physically and sexually abused his 2 daughters for a period of years while the family lived in Texas. A Texas grand jury considered the matter in 1981 and had declined to proceed against Stitely. However, Cal. Pen. Code section 190.3 expressly permits, at the penalty phase, proof of any violent criminal activity except as to any offense resulting in an aquittal. Under CA S. Ct. precedent, a grand jury's declining to proceed does not constitute an "acquittal."

An autopsy revealed that the victim, whom Stitely had picked up at a bar, had a blood alcohol level of .26%. The defense tried to introduce this evidence both at the guilt and penalty phases, but the trial court largely excluded it.

The Court's opinion can be found here.

People v. Guzman

The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000 (enacted through Proposition 36) requires courts to order probation and drug treatment, instead of incarceration, for certain "nonviolent drug possession offenses" (NDPOs). In this case, the Court rejected an Equal Protection challenge to the Act.

Guzman served 8 months in jail for inflicting corporal injury on a cohabitant. While out on probation Guzman pled guilty, in a separate action, to drug possession charges which qualified as NDPOs. For these, he was granted probation and treatment as required by the Act.

The state later petitioned to revoke the probation Guzman received from the domestic abuse case. Guzman filed a "Motion to Compel Drug Treatment Pursuant to Prop. 36." The trial court found that Guzman had violated his probation, denied his motion for drug treatment, and imposed the 2-year mitigated prison term from the domestic abuse conviction.

If a person on parole after a conviction for a non-NDPO later commits a NDPO, the Act prohibits the state from revoking that person's parole. However, the Act does not provide similar protection to defendants who commit an NDPO while on probation for a non-NDPO offense. Guzman argued that this constituted an equal protection violation, and the Court of Appeal agreed with him.

In a unanimous opinion, available here, the CA S. Ct. reversed today. It concluded that probationers like Guzman, who commit an NDPO while still on probation for a non-NDPO, are not "similarly situated" to parolees who commit an NDPO after completing a prison term for a non-NDPO. Thus, affording disparate treatment to the 2 classes is not an equal protection violation.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Two more opinions

#1: Torts - Death on the high seas and concurrent jurisdiction
The Court unanimously upheld a wrongful death award against a shipping company, the decedent's employer. The jury found that the defendant was negligent under the Jones Act (46 U.S.C. Appen. section 688 et seq.), which extends the protections of the Federal Employers' Liability Act to seamen. The shipping company argued that the CA court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiff's maritime claims because the decedent's work for the defendant took place outside of CA's territorial waters. The Court rejected that argument, concluding that CA state courts possess concurrent jurisdiction with federal courts over Jones Act claims, and that the CA trial court properly exercised that jurisdiction. The case is Donaldson v. National Marine.

The Court's (mercifully short - see today's other case) opinion is available here.

#2: Criminal law - automatic appeal
In People v. Panah, the Court affirmed the death sentence of a defendant convicted of the 1993 murder of an 8-year-old girl. The jury found the murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in the commission of the crimes of sodomy and lewd acts upon a child under 14. The defendant was 22 at the time. Scanning the 133-page opinion, written by Justice Moreno, brought to mind the recent LA Times article (see March 5 post) noting that each execution carried out in CA costs taxpayers over a quarter billion dollars.

Finally, one cannot help but be struck by the extraordinarily tragic nature of a little girl brutally murdered by a young defendant who had been physically and sexually abused as a child himself. As long as the death penalty exists, this case certainly represents a particularly appropriate one for its application. However, perhaps the hundreds of millions of dollars spent administering the capital punishment system could be more fruitfully spent on attempting to cure the pervasive evils of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

The Court's unanimous opinion is available here.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Two opinions today

#1: Criminal law - automatic appeal
The Court upheld the death sentence of a defendant convicted of the 1991 kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of an 8-year-old elementary school student. The defendant, who was 23 at the time, was previously a teacher's aide at the victim's school.

The defendant was diagnosed as mildly to moderately mentally retarded. On this issue one interesting point caught my eye:

The Court held that the prosecution may introduce evidence of a defendant's mental illness as an aggravating consideration if that mental condition relates to "the circumstances of the crime." In previous cases, the Court has held that no reasonable juror could believe "that extreme mental or emotional disturbance . . . were circumstances in aggravation." People v. Benson, 52 Cal.3d 754 (1990). Here, however, evidence of the defendant's mental illness - and the inference that the defendant was a sexual sadist - was relevant to "the circumstances of the crime" (tying the victim up, post-mortem burning of the body, etc.) and thus admissible as aggravating evidence in the prosecution's case-in-chief. The Court distinguished between mental illness evidence related to the "circumstances of the crime" and mental illness evidence presented simply to draw the inference that the defendant is dangerous in general.

The case is People v. Smith (2005 WL 549550). The opinion can be accessed here.

#2: Civil Procedure - CA law and Federal Arbitration Act
The Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act (9 U.S.C. section 1 et seq.) does not preclude the application of a provision of the CA Arbitration Act (Cal. Code Civ. Pro. section 1281.2(c)), which permits a trial court in some circumstances to stay arbitration pending the outcome of related litigation. The parties in this case had agreed that their arbitration agreement would be governed by CA law. However, the Court noted that this decision does not preclude parties from expressly designating that any arbitration proceeding should go forward under the FAA's procedural provisions rather than under state procedural law.

The case is Cronus Investments, Inc. v. Concierge Services (2005 WL 549615). The opinion can be found here.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Oral arguments

The Court heard oral arguments today in 2 cases. A summary of the questions presented can be found here.

The Court has set 13 cases for oral arguments in its upcoming Los Angeles session, scheduled for April 6-8, 2005. You can find the schedule here.

Certified question from 9th Circuit

Last week the Court granted the 9th Circuit's request for certification in Philadelphia Indemnity Ins. Co. v. Montes-Harris. The question presented is: "Does the duty of an insurer to investigate the insurability of an insured, as recognized by the CA S. Ct. in Barrera v. State Farm, apply to an automobile liability insurer that issues an excess liability insurance contract in the context of a rental car transaction?" The case is S130717 in the CA S. Ct.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Today's oral arguments

The Court heard arguments in 3 cases today. A brief summary of the issues presented can be accessed here.

9th Circuit weighs in on prosecutorial inconsistency

On the heels of last week's CA S. Ct. opinion in In re Sakarias comes yesterday's 9th Circuit en banc decision in Hayes v. Brown (2005 WL 517853). The 9th Circuit reversed a CA man's death sentence because prosecutors concealed the fact that they had cut a deal with their main witness' attorney. The deal was kept secret from the witness himself so he would not knowingly perjure himself. A 7-4 majority of the en banc panel, however, held that due process "protects defendants against the knowing use of any false evidence by the state."

Several other courts in recent years have found some "aggressive" prosecutorial tactics troubling. However, even these courts have disagreed over when prosecutorial misconduct so prejudices a defendant that it requires a reversal. The US Supreme Court may be set to clear things up. It granted cert. in a 6th Circuit case where the prosecutor argued in the 2 defendants' separate trials that each defendant had shot the victim. The 6th Circuit found this use of "two inconsistent and irreconcilable theories" to be a due process violation. The case is Mitchell v. Stumpf (Jan. 7, 2005 No. 04-637). It is set for argument on April 19, 2005.

Claire Cooper of the Sacramento Bee has this article on the 9th Circuit's ruling.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Two opinions today

#1: Criminal Law – People v. Vieira (available here)
This case was the automatic appeal of 1 of the participants in a 1990 quadruple murder committed by a cult-style group in Stanislaus county. Vieira killed one of the 4 victims. Vieira was 21 at the time, and had been beaten, sexually humiliated, etc. for years due to his “low” status in the group. He was convicted of 4 counts of murder and sentenced to death. The Court today upheld 3 of those death sentences.

In addition to the very tragic story involved, this case also raised another issue of prosecutor misconduct (see last week’s Sakarias posts and articles). At the penalty phase, the prosecutor invoked the Bible as the source of 2 “very important concepts”: (1) that “capital punishment for murder is necessary in order to preserve the sanctity of human life” and (2) “only the severest penalty of death can underscore the severity of taking life.” The prosecutor also quoted from Exodus. He told the jurors that this line of argument was “just in the event any of you have any reservations about religion in this case.”

Today the Court, Justice Kennard dissenting, ruled that this conduct by the prosecutor was improper but did not prejudice Vieira. In 2002 the Court considered, in People v. Slaughter, the same biblical argument (in fact by the same prosecutor). In Slaughter, as in Vieira today, a majority of the Court held that it constituted misconduct but did not prejudice the defendant.

#2: Civil Procedure – Campbell v. Regents of UC (available here)
The Court unanimously held that a plaintiff must exhaust her administrative remedies before suing under CA’s “whistleblower” statutes (Ca. Gov. Code section 12653(c) and Ca. Lab. Code section 1102.5). The Court stated that the “whistleblower” statutes do not constitute an exception to the “settled rule requiring exhaustion of administrative remedies.”

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The cost of the death penalty in CA

Rone Tempest of the LA Times discusses here the financial costs of administering the death penalty in CA. Part of this cost is the approximately $11 million the CA S. Ct. spends each year on court-appointed defense counsel for automatic appeals. Although CA trails only TX in death sentences handed out, CA has accounted for only 1% of US executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. According to the Times, that calculates to over a quarter of a billion dollars for each CA execution.

Upcoming vacancy on the Court?

In a Recorder article on the ongoing Senate fight over President Bush's judicial nominees, Jeff Chorney mentions CA S. Ct. Justice Janice Rogers Brown, "whom [Pres.] Bush wants on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals."

If Justice Brown leaves the Court, it would create the first vacancy since 2001, when former Gov. Davis nominated Justice Moreno. It would also give Gov. Schwarzenegger the opportunity to appoint a S. Ct. justice. As Vanessa Hua of the SF Chronicle writes here, the Governor has faced recent criticism from the Asian American community over his judicial appointments for SF trial courts.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Yesterday's Opinions in the News

Articles on the prosecutor misconduct ruling (Sakarias):
Maura Dolan of the LA Times
Bob Egelko of the SF Chronicle
Jeff Chorney of The Recorder (thanks to HowAppealing for the tip).
The Contra Costa Times has a brief account.

The Court's procedural ruling in Varian Medical Systems, Inc. v. Delfino involves an interesting Bay Area saga:
Howard Mintz of the San Jose Mercury News has this article.
Jeff Chorney of The Recorder (thanks again to HowAppealing).

Thursday, March 03, 2005

3 Opinions Today

Criminal Law: Prosecutor's use of inconsistent evidence
In an interesting case dealing with prosecutorial conduct, the Court today vacated 1 defendant's death sentence. The Court held that the prosecutor violated that defendant's due process rights by "intentionally and without good faith justification arguing inconsistent and irreconcilable factual theories" in the 2 defendants' separate trials. With respect to the other defendant, the Court held that any violation by the prosecutor was harmless. The case is In re Sakarias/Waidla on Habeas Corpus, 2005 WL 486783 (Cal.).

The Court held that "fundamental fairness does not permit the People, without a good faith justification, to attribute to two defendants, in separate trials, a criminal act only one defendant could have committed."

In a concurring/dissenting opinion, Justice Baxter wrote that he found no bad faith by the prosecutor and would have upheld both death sentences.

The Court also held that claims of Miranda error are cognizable on habeas corpus petitions.

Maura Dolan of the LA Times discusses the case in this article.
Today's 3 opinions are available here.

Today's other 2 opinions

Civil Procedure: Appeal of trial court's denial of anti-SLAPP motions
The Court held today that an appeal from the denial of a special motion to strike, under CA's anti-SLAPP statute (Code Civ. Proc. section 425.16), results in an automatic stay on all further trial court proceedings on the merits. The case is Varian Medical Systems, Inc. v. Delfino, 2005 WL 486787 (Cal.).

Chief Justice George filed a concurring/dissenting opinion. Although he agreed that the trial court erred in refusing to stay the case pending appeal, he would have found the error to be harmless.

Criminal Law: Automatic appeal from a judgment of death
The Court upheld the death sentence of a man convicted of a 1987 double homicide in Oakland. The case is People v. Harrison, 2005 WL 486781 (Cal.).