Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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In 1996, at Madison Correctional Institution, Stojetz and other inmates stormed a unit housing juvenile offenders. After overpowering the guard, they proceeded to the cell of 17-year-old Watkins and attacked him. Watkins initially escaped but was cornered and stabbed to death by Stojetz and another inmate. Trial evidence indicated that Stojetz and his accomplices (members of the Aryan Brotherhood) killed Watkins, who was black, due in part to his race. Stojetz was charged with aggravated murder with prior calculation with a death-penalty specification--committing aggravated murder while a prisoner in a detention facility. The court accepted the jury's death-sentence recommendation. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of federal habeas corpus relief, rejecting Stojetz’s claims that trial counsel were ineffective for failing to: question prospective jurors about their views on race; life qualify the jury; accurately describe the nature of mitigating evidence during voir dire; investigate and present evidence; request voir dire of jurors concerning publicity during the trial; object to allegedly improper jury instructions and to incidents of prosecutorial misconduct; and object to opinion evidence regarding, Stojetz’s intent. The court also rejected claims of prosecutorial misconduct by failing to disclose Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction medical records to show that Stojetz’s throat was cut by another inmate; that the district court abused its discretion in denying a request for access to the grand-jury transcripts; that Stojetz was actually innocent of aggravated murder; and that his death sentence was arbitrary. View "Stojetz v. Ishee" on Justia Law

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In 2008, a jury convicted Cradler of violating 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), which prohibits convicted felons from possessing a firearm. This offense typically carries a maximum imprisonment penalty of 10 years. Under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), a defendant who violates section 922(g)(1) after being convicted of at least three violent felonies or serious drug offenses becomes subject to a mandatory minimum imprisonment penalty of 15 years, 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(1). The court sentenced Cradler under the ACCA, to a term of 222 months. The Sixth Circuit affirmed in 2011. In 2014, Cradler moved, under 28 U.S.C. 2255 to vacate his sentence in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Descamps decision. He argued that his convictions for sexual battery and third-degree burglary no longer qualified as violent felonies. The government conceded that it lacked the requisite information to support the argument that Cradler’s sexual battery conviction qualifies as a violent felony. The Sixth Circuit granted relief, first declining to address whether Cradler’s motion was timely or procedurally defaulted. FInding the Tennessee third-degree burglary statute divisible, the court applied a modified categorical approach, examined documents pertaining to Cradler’s conviction, and concluded the statute criminalizes more conduct than generic burglary and does not qualify as the enumerated offense of “burglary.” In so holding, the court abrogated a 2006 Sixth Circuit decision. View "Cradler v. United States" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, 11 minority firefighters who were laid off by Detroit in 2012 as part of a reduction in force (RIF) that followed the city’s bankruptcy, sued the city and their union, (DFFA), alleging a violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000e. The district court rejected their claims on summary judgment, finding that only one Plaintiff had exhausted his administrative remedies to pursue a claim against the city, but that even on the merits, Plaintiffs failed to present direct evidence or to establish a prima facie case under the circumstantial evidence approach, which includes a heightened burden in a RIF. The court concluded that Plaintiffs could not establish that the DFFA breached its duty of fair representation. The Sixth Circuit agreed that 10 Plaintiffs failed to exhaust administrative remedies, that there was no direct evidence of discriminatory motive, and that Plaintiffs’ statistical evidence was not probative and did not establish a circumstantial case. The court reversed as to DFFA, holding that a prima facie disability discrimination claim against a union does not require that a plaintiff demonstrate that the union breached its duty of fair representation. View "Peeples v. City of Detroit" on Justia Law

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Sorrells, looking out of a window, saw men arguing. She knew Johnson, Levingston, and Grace from the neighborhood. Johnson knocked Grace to the ground. Sorrells saw the men standing over Grace, followed by flashes from their guns. Sorrells contacted the police 10 days later, saying she was “[o]ne hundred percent” sure Johnson and Levingston were the shooters. Sorrells asked for witness protection. At a rescheduled pre-trial hearing in front of Levingston, Sorrells expressed doubt, stating she was not wearing her glasses that night. At trial, Sorrells said that she changed her testimony based on what other people were saying and that she genuinely grew unsure. The court instructed the jury that it could consider Sorrells’ prior statements “as testified by her” only to impeach her credibility but that it could consider the prior statements and a recorded conversation through a detective’s testimony as substantive evidence under an exclusion to Ohio’s hearsay rule. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of his federal habeas petition. Levingston did not establish that the state court unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent or relied on unreasonable fact findings, 28 U.S.C. 2254(d). That Sorrells may have been a “witness” against Levingston when she spoke to police does not matter because Levingston had the opportunity to “confront” Sorrells at trial, for cross-examination. The nature of a police investigation does not permit cross-examination by the suspect’s attorney at the time of the initial statement. View "Levingston v. Warden, Warren Correctional Institution" on Justia Law

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Sorrells, looking out of a window, saw men arguing. She knew Johnson, Levingston, and Grace from the neighborhood. Johnson knocked Grace to the ground. Sorrells saw the men standing over Grace, followed by flashes from their guns. Sorrells contacted the police 10 days later, saying she was “[o]ne hundred percent” sure Johnson and Levingston were the shooters. Sorrells asked for witness protection. At a rescheduled pre-trial hearing in front of Levingston, Sorrells expressed doubt, stating she was not wearing her glasses that night. At trial, Sorrells said that she changed her testimony based on what other people were saying and that she genuinely grew unsure. The court instructed the jury that it could consider Sorrells’ prior statements “as testified by her” only to impeach her credibility but that it could consider the prior statements and a recorded conversation through a detective’s testimony as substantive evidence under an exclusion to Ohio’s hearsay rule. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of his federal habeas petition. Levingston did not establish that the state court unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent or relied on unreasonable fact findings, 28 U.S.C. 2254(d). That Sorrells may have been a “witness” against Levingston when she spoke to police does not matter because Levingston had the opportunity to “confront” Sorrells at trial, for cross-examination. The nature of a police investigation does not permit cross-examination by the suspect’s attorney at the time of the initial statement. View "Levingston v. Warden, Warren Correctional Institution" on Justia Law

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The Honorable Michael J. Theile is a Michigan state-court judge. In 2020, the year of the next election for the seat he now holds, Theile will be 71 years of age. Because the Michigan Constitution and a statute prohibit a person who has attained the age of 70 from being elected or appointed to judicial office, Theile will not be eligible to run for re-election, Mich. Const. art. VI, section 19(3); Mich. Comp. Laws 168.411. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of his complaint, in which he asserted a violation of the Equal Protection Clause and asked the court to dispense with rational-basis review of age-based classifications and adopt intermediate scrutiny. The court declined to reverse the settled precedent of the Supreme Court and of the Sixth Circuit mandating rational-basis review for age-based classifications and precedent identifying multiple rational bases for judicial age limitations. View "Theile v. State of Michigan" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, who profess disbelief in God and one Jewish individual, alleged that the inscription of the Motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency, (31 U.S.C. 5112(d)(1) and 5114(b)), violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and constitutional provisions, placing a substantial burden on their religious exercise by causing Plaintiffs to: personally bear a religious message that is the antithesis of what they consider to be truth, and “proselytize for a religious claim.” The Jewish Plaintiff alleged that it is sinful for him to participate in an activity that involves the superfluous printing of God’s name. Plaintiffs alleged that the inscription denies equal dignity to Plaintiffs’ religious views, contributing to cultural stigma. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of all claims. RFRA does not require the government to permit Plaintiffs to use their preferred means of payment. Plaintiffs have not plausibly alleged that the inscription substantially burdens their exercise of religion or that the currency statutes intended to discriminate against them or suppress their religion; precedent demonstrates that the statutes do not lack any valid secular purpose. The currency statutes are neutral and generally applicable and only incidentally burden religious practices. Plaintiffs alleged facts showing societal bias against Atheists and suggesting that Congress required and reaffirmed the inscription for Christian religious purposes but have not presented factual allegations plausibly demonstrating that the challenged statutes caused the societal bias that is their asserted injury. View "New Doe Child #1 v. Congress of the United States" on Justia Law

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Comey was the administrator of her brother, Warehime's, estate. Martin and Simons fraudulently took ownership of Warehime’s property. Martin, a nurse, accessed Warehime’s medical records without authorization so that Simons could fabricate a story about a relationship with Warehime that would make the putative property transfer look legitimate. Martin recruited a patient to “take [Comey] out.” The patient contacted the police. Before the government brought criminal charges, the probate court entered judgment against Martin and Simons. Martin pled guilty to using interstate commerce facilities with the intent to commit murder-for-hire, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and obtaining individually identifiable health information. The government agreed to move for a three-level reduction in the Guidelines “[i]f the defendant continues to demonstrate that he has accepted responsibility.” Before sentencing, Martin filed a Rule 60(b) motion to vacate the probate court judgment, asserting facts that contradicted the guilty plea. The government brought Martin’s motion to the sentencing hearing. Had Martin received the reduction, his guidelines range would have been 87–108 months. The court imposed a sentence of 144 months. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Martin then filed a section 2255 motion to vacate, arguing ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorneys advised him to file the Rule 60(b) motion. The government submitted documents contradicting that position but containing some inconsistencies. The court denied Martin’s motion without a hearing. Martin then filed a Rule 59(e) motion to alter the judgment. The court denied the motion, stating that “[a]lthough [Martin] asserts that there are facts in dispute, [he] offers no proof beyond mere self-serving allegations.” The Sixth Circuit reversed. The district court abused its discretion by declining to hold an evidentiary hearing. Martin presents more than mere assertions of innocence; his motion contains factual allegations about the deficiencies of his attorneys’ advice. View "Martin v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 2006, Lang shot and killed Cheek and Burditte during a botched drug deal. Lang was indicted on two counts of aggravated murder and for aggravated robbery with firearm specifications. After two witnesses had testified, the prosecutor notified the court that Cheek’s father recognized Juror 386 as the daughter of the woman married to Cheek’s brother. After two more witnesses testified, the judge and counsel questioned Juror 386; she acknowledged she met Cheek once and had attended her funeral. She learned of Cheek’s death from her grandfather and from newspapers. She denied talking to others about the case and was excused by agreement. The court confirmed that Juror 386 had not spoken with and would have no contact with other jurors, then told the jurors that she was excused because “she may have had a relationship with ... somebody.” The court asked the jurors as a group whether Juror 386 had talked about knowing someone involved in the case and stated: “I take it by your silence that she did not.” Neither attorney asked to question them individually. The jury returned a guilty verdict. After taking mitigation evidence, the judge imposed a death sentence. Lang unsuccessfully sought federal habeas corpus relief. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The Ohio Supreme Court reasonably concluded that counsel’s approach to mitigation did not result in ineffective assistance; Lang suffered no prejudice from his attorney’s failure to request individual voir dire of the jurors. View "Lang v. Bobby" on Justia Law

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Stevenson is serving life in prison in Michigan for first-degree murder, assault with intent to commit murder, and possessing a firearm in the commission of a felony. His convictions and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal. Stevenson’s state motion for relief from judgment was denied. Stevenson filed a 28 U.S.C. 2254 petition in the Western District of Michigan, which was denied as untimely. Days before the Western District dismissed the first petition, Stevenson filed another 2254 petition in the Eastern District, which, upon learning of Stevenson’s earlier petition, dismissed the second as “duplicative.” Noting that the second petition sought to raise three grounds not mentioned in the first petition, the Sixth Circuit determined that the Eastern District abused its discretion by failing to transfer the second petition to the Western District because a subsequent 2254 petition filed while the petitioner’s initial petition is still pending should be construed as a motion to amend the initial petition under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15. On remand, the Eastern District transferred the case to the Western District, which transferred the case to the Sixth Circuit for consideration as an application to file a second or successive habeas petition (28 U.S.C. 1631). The Sixth Circuit remanded, noting that it already determined that the second petition was not second or successive but should be construed as a motion to amend the first petition. View "In re Stevenson" on Justia Law