Supreme Court Smackdown

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“Why is this case here, except as an opportunity to upset Melendez-Diaz?”

So wondered Justice Scalia during oral argument a couple weeks back in the case of Briscoe v. Virginia. For some background, see our previous post on this case here. Briefly, the Supreme Court held last year in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts that, in a drug case, the prosecution cannot prove the existence of a controlled substance by merely introducing the lab report — the chemist has to testify, or else the Confrontation Clause is violated. There was a huge outcry from prosecutors’ offices across the country. It would be too much of a burden to get chemists to testify at every drug trial. There was a concerted effort to get around this new ruling, or better yet to get the Supremes to reverse themselves.

So in Briscoe, Virginia tried to get around the rule by saying the prosecution only needs to introduce a lab report, and if the defense wants to confront the chemist then the defense can subpoena the chemist as a witness.

More than half the state attorneys-general filed an amicus brief, arguing that the expense and administrative burden of getting chemists to testify at trial would just be unworkable. At oral argument on January 11, it sounded like Justice Alito, at least, was buying into that argument (Tr. at 16, lines 16 to 18). And there was hope that Justice Sotomayor would be that one extra vote to undo Melendez-Diaz.

In our previous post, we pointed out various reasons why such hopes weren’t based in reality, and why the claims of expense and burden don’t hold water. We seriously doubt that anyone at the Supreme Court bothers to read this blog. But these observations are fairly self-evident, we think.

So it was no surprise to see a one-sentence smackdown from the Supreme Court this morning:

We vacate the judgment of the Supreme Court of Virginia and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with the opinion in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 557 U.S. ___ (2009).

It is so ordered.

In other words, if the states do not put the chemist on the stand in the People’s case, then they violate the Confrontation Clause. End of story. Bureaucratic convenience does not trump individual rights.

As for all those prosecutors’ offices who whine that it can’t be done? We’d ask them to look at New York City, whose courts are far busier than theirs ever will be, and who nevertheless manage the job as a matter of routine. Defense counsel often stipulates to the substance being what it is, and when there is no stipulation then getting the chemist to court is no more challenging than any other police employee who’d rather not be there. It’s just part of the job, and amazingly enough it works out just fine.

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