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Sam Heldman


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Tuesday, April 22, 2003
No. 02-524 Price v. Vincent

I know what you’re thinking. That was argued yesterday, Ted! You slacked again! I think I would be a little more worried about it if I thought anyone was actually reading. Nevertheless, I trudge on. The standard disclaimers apply: I have not read or heard any accounts of the oral arguments in the cases I am about to predict. I am forced, in fact, to predict them now, because I am getting up in approximately seven hours to go watch tomorrow’s argument in Nike v. Kasky. I can give you that prediction right now: The Court will REVERSE. I know this because Goldstein Howe represents the petitioner, along with Larry Tribe, who will be arguing tomorrow.

I’ll get to that later. Right now I’m supposed to be talking about Price. In this case, the Respondent was being tried for a gang-related murder. At the end of the prosecution’s evidence, Vincent’s lawyers moved for a directed verdict on the issue of first degree murder. The court initially agreed that there was insufficient evidence of premeditation to convict Vincent of first degree murder, and granted the motion. A couple days later, the judge had a change of heart, and decided to let the trial go forward on first degree murder.

Vincent (and his lawyers) didn’t think that was very fair. They argued that continuing the trial after the judge ruled constituted double jeopardy. The trial court was not inclined to agree. Vincent was then (naturally) convicted of first degree murder. The state appellate court reduced the offense to second degree murder, agreeing with Vincent on the double jeopardy rule. The Michigan Supreme Court reinstated the first degree murder conviction.

Then, (these habeas cases sure are annoying for their complicated procedural history, aren’t they?) Vincent brought a habeas corpus case in federal court. The district court agreed with the double jeopardy argument and granted the writ. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, and here we are. For once, a warden is a petitioner and not a respondent.

The petitioner’s first question presented is fairly ridiculous, or at least it seems to be ridiculous to me on first glance. Petitioner argues that because the Michigan Supreme Court found that the trial court’s oral ruling did not constitute a grant of directed verdict, that is a factual finding that is due deference. I cannot imagine what they were thinking of when they came up with that one. Is the Supreme Court of Michigan any better qualified to determine, as a matter of fact, the effect of the trial judge’s words? Absolutely not. The Michigan Supreme Court was not there; it did not hear the judge or the attorneys present. All it had was the record, which the federal district court also had.

On the other hand, the Court did grant cert on the question, so you never know. In any case, I think the Court will give the back of its metaphorical hand to this ridiculous “procedural fact deference” argument. The petitioner argues that ambiguous statements by the trial judge interpreted by an appellate court are treated as findings of fact. Without reading the cases, I’m certain that they refer to actual factual issues, not findings of the legal effect of the judges ambiguous words.

So the second question is whether it’s a violation of double jeopardy to continue a trial after a motion for directed verdict has been granted, where it was not reduced to writing. I suspect that the answer is “yes,” but that the court will not find that the standard for double jeopardy was “clearly established” such that AEDPA’s impossibly high standard for habeas will be met. On the other hand, there is some good precedent that a finding of insufficient evidence by the judge does trigger double jeopardy. Accordingly, and with as little confidence as I ever have, I predict the Court will AFFIRM.

N. 02-679 Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa

This has to go faster. Now it is a scant six hours until I have to get up to get to the Court in time to wait for 5 additional hours. We’ll make this one quick. This is a Title VII gender discrimination case. I agree with the Solicitor General’s brief, because Findlaw has not collected any of the others, and accordingly, I predict the Court will REVERSE.