Saturday, April 2, 2011

US Supreme Court decides Connick v Thompson on the possible liability of a DA's office for failing to train its staff

Last Tuesday the US Supreme Court announced its decision in the highly awaited case Connick v. Thompson. For my previous posts on the case, including links to the oral argument go here, here and here. In a five-four opinion by Justice Thomas that was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Alito, the Court held that a local government decision not to train employees about their duties under Brady v. Maryland may rise to an actionable policy, but the failure to train must reflect a deliberate indifference to the rights of persons. A pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is ordinarily necessary to demonstrate deliberate indifference. In this case, the defendant conceded that the prosecutor in a case against the plaintiff John Thompson did not comply with his obligations under Brady. Thompson was convicted and spent 18 years in prison, 14 of them isolated on death row, before the truth came to light. In a dissent joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, Justice Ginsburg stated that "The evidence presented to the jury that awarded compensation to Thompson . . . points distinctly away from the Court’s assessment. As the trial record in the §1983 action reveals, the conceded, long-concealed prosecutorial transgressions were neither isolated nor atypical. From the top down, the evidence showed, members of the District Attorney’s Office, including the District Attorney himself, misperceived Brady’s compass and therefore inadequately attended to their disclosure obligations. Throughout the pretrial and trial proceedings against Thompson, the team of four engaged in prosecuting him for armed robbery and murder hid from the defense and the court exculpatory information Thompson requested and had a constitutional right to receive. The prosecutors did so despite multiple opportunities, spanning nearly two decades, to set the record straight. Based on the prosecutors’ conduct relating to Thompson’s trials, a fact trier could reasonably conclude that inattention to Brady was standard operating procedure at the District Attorney’s Office. What happened here, the Court’s opinion obscures, was no momentary oversight, no single incident of a lone officer’s misconduct. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that misperception and disregard of Brady’s disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish. That evidence, I would hold, established persistent, deliberately indifferent conduct for which the District Attorney’s Officebears responsibility under §1983." As usual, the opinion has generated much attention in the media. Here are some of the links I have seen, most of which are courtesy of the SCOTUS blog: The legal ethics forum has some comments here. Bob Barnes of the Washington Post reports that Connick is “the first decision of the court term that split the justices into ideological camps, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized her disagreement by reading a summary of her dissent from the bench.” Barnes adds that the decision “marks the apparent end of a decades-long trip through the legal process for Thompson, whose experience has produced a book, a potential movie deal and a dying confession from the prosecutor who withheld the evidence.” The New York Times, USA Today, Constitutional Law Prof Blog, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, JURIST, Crime & Consequences, Courthouse News Service, and ABA Journal have additional coverage.

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