Cruel but Not Unusual
Clarence Thomas writes one of the meanest Supreme Court decisions ever.
Scalia and Thomas are at pains to say that Connick was not aware of or responsible for his subordinates' unconstitutional conduct, except—as Ginsburg points out—that Connick acknowledged that he misunderstood Brady,acknowledged that his prosecutors "were coming fresh out of law school," acknowledged he didn't know whether they had Brady training, and acknowledged that he himself had 'stopped reading law books … and looking at opinions' when he was first elected District Attorney in 1974." And Connick also conceded that holding his underlings to the highest Brady standards would "make [his] job more difficult." As Bennett Gershman and Joel Cohen point out, the jury had "considerable evidence that both Connick and prosecutors in his office were ignorant of the constitutional rules regarding disclosure of exculpatory evidence; they were ignorant of the rules regarding disclosure of scientific evidence; there was no training, or continuing education, and no procedures to monitor compliance with evidentiary requirements; prosecutors did not review police files; and shockingly, Connick himself had been indicted by federal prosecutors for suppressing a lab report of the kind hidden from Thompson."
It's not just that a jury, a judge, and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Connick knew his staff was undertrained and he failed to fix it. It's that it's almost impossible, on reviewing all of the evidence, to conclude anything else. Nobody is suggesting that the legal issue here is simple or that there aren't meaningful consequences to creating liability for district attorneys who fail to train their subordinates in Brady compliance. But those aren't the opinions that Thomas and Scalia produced. Their effort instead was to sift and resift the facts until the injury done to Thompson can be pinned on a single bad actor, acting in bad faith. It's a long, sad, uphill trek.
Beyond that, there is no suggestion in either opinion that this is a hard question or a close call or even a hint of regret at their conclusion. There is only certainty that the jury, the appeals court, and above all Ginsburg got it completely wrong in believing that someone should be held responsible for the outrages suffered by John Thompson. If there is empathy for anyone in evidence here, it's for the overworked and overzealous district attorneys.
It's left to Ginsburg to acknowledge that the costs of immunizing Connick from any wrongdoing is as high as the cost of opening him to it: "The prosecutorial concealment Thompson encountered … is bound to be repeated unless municipal agencies bear responsibility—made tangible by §1983 liability—for adequately conveying what Brady requires and for monitoring staff compliance." As Scott Lemieux points out, by all-but-immunizing Connick for the conduct of his subordinates, the court has created a perfect Catch-22, since the courts already give prosecutors absolute immunity for their actions as prosecutors (though they may still be liable for their conduct as administrators or investigators). By immunizing their bosses as well, the court has guaranteed that nobody can be held responsible for even the most shocking civil rights violations.
I don't think that the failure at the court is one of empathy. I don't ask that Thomas or Scalia shed a tear for an innocent man who almost went to his death because of deceptive prosecutors. And, frankly, Ginsburg's dissent—while powerful—is no less Vulcan in tone than their opinions. But this case is of a piece with prior decisions in which Thomas and Scalia have staked out positions that revel in the hyper-technical and deliberately callous. It was, after all, Scalia who wrote in 2009 that "this court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent." It was Thomas who wrote that a prisoner who was slammed to a concrete floor and punched and kicked by a guard after asking for a grievance form had no constitutional claim.
The law awards no extra points for being pitiless and scornful. There is rarely a reason to be pitiless and scornful, certainly in a case of an innocent man who was nearly executed. It leads one to wonder whether Thomas and Scalia sometimes are just because they can be.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.