Since the last post was mostly tongue-in-cheek, I couldn’t include #11: be honest, or intellectually honest.
The legal profession, despite the number of students graduating from law school every year, is small and insular. The local bar is small. The attorneys who practice in your given field are even smaller. And when you deal with the same attorneys over and over again, there is nothing more valuable than your reputation and your integrity.
Which is why it is imperative that you be honest. That you be intellectually honest. Opposing counsel and judges can see through your prevarication.
The law is not always friendly to you or your client or the position you want to take. It happens to all of us. That doesn’t give you a license to lie, or to make up arguments that ignore the law or the facts of the case.
The last thing you want to do is pretend that you’re right when you’re not. It’s hollow and transparent. Everyone sees through it and it’s sort of like the boy who cried wolf. No one will believe you again, even when you’re right.
It’s something Jennifer L. Smith, Associated Deputy Attorney General for the State of Tennessee would have been well served by, had she remembered it and followed it.
Smith represented Tennessee before SCOTUS yesterday in Cone v. Bell. At issue in Bell was some boring nonsense about procedural default in habeas corpus practice. But what it devolved into was a discussion of whether the State had intentionally misrepresented the status of a Brady claim to a state court and then made disingenuous arguments to cover it up later.
What happened was this: The defense, in attempting to prove mitigating factors in the penalty phase of Cone’s trial, argued that Cone was a drug user and in the throes of a drug induced psychotic state when he committed the murders. To that end, they provided testimony from two experts. The State, during cross-examination, took greats pains to point out that the experts’ only source of such addiction information was Cone himself and went to some lengths to prove that Cone was not addicted to drugs.
The only problem is that the State possessed a wealth of information that showed that Cone was indeed addicted to drugs and seemed to be in a drug induced state at the time of the murders. The only logical conclusion here is that the prosecutors intentionally did not turn over this evidence to the defense. This is where Ms. Smith starts to get into some trouble. She has hardly begun speaking when she gets hit with the first questions:
JUSTICE STEVENS: May I ask — let me get something on the table. Do you agree that the evidence shows that this evidence was deliberately suppressed?
MS. SMITH: Your Honor, I don’t think there’s been any — any finding about the —
JUSTICE STEVENS: But is there any explanation for — was there any explanation for it other than the tactical explanation?
MS. SMITH: There’s no explanation in the record, there has been no finding about whether the evidence has been suppressed at all in this case because both the district court and the Sixth Circuit decided as a matter of law that the materials —
JUSTICE STEVENS: It seems to be relevant because if it was suppressed for tactical reasons, it seems to me hard to say that the prosecution thought it didn’t make any difference.
It doesn’t get any better for Ms. Smith:
JUSTICE KENNEDY: Do you think the prosecutor had an ethical duty to turn over this material?
MS. SMITH: I think that the material — if the material — if the subject was immaterial —
JUSTICE STEVENS: It’s a simple question, yes or no?
MS. SMITH: I think that as a legal matter there was no — no need to turn it over because it was immaterial.
JUSTICE STEVENS: That’s not my question. Can you answer my question? Did he have an ethical duty to turn this material over?
MS. SMITH: I’m unaware of any ethical requirement that he turn it over, and I don’t think that — and certainly under Brady if it’s not material, we don’t think it was material, then it’s certainly not required as a constitutional matter. And the reason is not —
JUSTICE SOUTER: You believe that the materiality judgment is yours to make, the State’s to make as sort of a gate keeping measure? Isn’t the materiality an issue for the fact finder?
MS. SMITH: Well, I think it’s — it’s —
JUSTICE SOUTER: You exclude — do you believe that you can, in effect, suppress any piece of evidence on — on — on the State’s judgment that it will not prove to be material in the context of the whole case?
Yikes. But wait. There’s more. After this little subterfuge of hiding the Brady material, the State twice argued to post-conviction courts and appellate courts that the Brady issue had already been decided. When, in fact, no Court had ever actually ruled on the merits of the issue. So it was deemed procedurally defaulted.
Not content with doing that much damage, the State them proceeded to change its tact on subsequent appeals. Accepting that the issue had not actually been decided, the State then argued that the defendant had waived the issue, despite several paragraphs in the habeas corpus petition alleging the Brady violation.
Any time you get a Justice of a Supreme Court, be it state or federal, to utter the following words, you know you’ve made a misstep along the way:
JUSTICE SOUTER: Then I will be candid with you that I simply cannot follow your argument because I believe you have just made a statement to me that is utterly irrational.
JUSTICE BREYER: Well, “waiver,” my goodness.
Why the State feels the need to defend every action it has ever take, however wrong or contrary to the law, is beyond me. If they were being intellectually honest, they would admit previous errors and make an appropriate argument. They might lose a case or two, but they at least wouldn’t end up in the position of having their credibility questioned by Supreme Court justices.
[This is not to say that Attorney Smith herself did anything untenable. It may well be that she was handed a deck of cards that lead to this result, and had to defend the questionable actions of others. It is the institutional resistance to admitting errors that irks me.]