June 01, 2013

U.S. Supreme Court Dismisses Louisiana Case Regarding the Right to a Speedy Trial

Becca Eden

As reported in the Spring 2013 edition of Project Press, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Boyer v. Louisiana on January 14, 2013, a case regarding the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. Jonathan Boyer was arrested on capital murder charges in 2002 and waited in jail for more than seven years before his trial commenced. The Court originally granted the writ to decide whether “a state’s failure to fund counsel for an indigent defendant for five years, particularly where failure was the direct result of the prosecution’s choice to seek the death penalty, should be weighed against the state for speedy trial purposes.” On April 29, 2013, the Court changed its mind and dismissed the writ of certiorari as improvidently granted in a per curiam order. This dismissal has the effect of upholding the lower court’s decision without formally ruling on the question presented.

Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, wrote a short opinion concurring with the order on the grounds that the case was granted on the basis of a “mistaken factual premise.” Justice Alito’s concurrence found that the largest share of the delay was the result of defense requests for continuances, despite a finding by the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal that the “majority of the seven-year delay was caused by the ‘lack of funding.’”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan, dissented from the order and stated that she would rule on the question presented because the Court’s precedent provides a clear answer. A 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Barker v. Wingo, set forth a four-factor balancing test for determining whether a violation of the right to a speedy trial has occurred: “[l]ength of delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant’s assertion of his right, and prejudice to the defendant.” Although the Louisiana court had found the delay in Boyer’s case was due to state funding problems, the court declined to weigh that delay against the State when analyzing the constitutional claim.

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor stated that the Louisiana court erred when it failed to weigh the reason for delay against the State in its analysis under Barker. She noted that an indigent defendant has no control over whether the State has set aside funds to pay for defense counsel and necessary investigation expenses but that states routinely “routinely make tradeoffs in the allocation of limited resources” and should bear the consequences of those choices. Because the state court erred in its failure to attribute the delay to the State, Justice Sotomayor said the court incorrectly applied an “especially significant” factor in the Barker analysis and that she would have remanded the case with instructions for the Louisiana court to conduct the analysis under the correct legal standard.

Justice Sotomayor also took issue with Justice Alito’s finding that the defense was primarily responsible for the delay, noting that the Louisiana court’s finding on cause of delay was conceded by the State in the lower court. She said there is “no reason this Court should comb through the record to allow Louisiana to turn its back on this prior position, and risk substituting this Court’s judgment for that of a state court on a question that is closely intertwined with state procedural rules.” Finally, she stated that the failure to resolve the case was “especially regrettable” because Mr. Boyer’s case appears to be “illustrative of larger, systemic problems” in Louisiana’s funding of indigent defense.