Supreme Court Notebook

Lawyer's work for murder client good enough

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court says a convicted murderer was not harmed by his lawyer's failure to pursue a forensic examination of a pool of blood at the crime scene.

The high court on Wednesday said the lawyer was not incompetent for using a strategy that did not include blood evidence.

Joshua Richter was convicted of killing Patrick Klein by shooting him during a robbery at Klein's house in Sacramento County, Calif. His lawyer did not ask for a forensic test of blood on the floor at Klein's apartment.

Richter said the pool of blood could have proved that Klein was killed in crossfire, instead of shot while sleeping on a couch.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that Richter's lawyer should have done tests on the blood, instead of depending on testimony from expert witnesses at the trial.

"It was at least arguable that a reasonable attorney could decide to forgo inquiry into the blood evidence in the circumstances here," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the unanimous judgment for the court.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she agreed that Richter's lawyer should have consulted blood experts while preparing for the trial but the prosecution had a very strong case, so that testimony likely would not have helped. "I would therefore not rank counsel's lapse 'so serious as to deprive (Richter) of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable,'" Ginsburg said. "For that reason, I concur in the court's judgment."

Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the consideration or decision because she worked on it while working as solicitor general.

The case is Harrington v. Richter, 09-587.

Court says NASA background checks can continue

By Jesse J. Holland

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to stop federal investigations into the private lives of people who want to work at government installations -- even those who don't have security clearances and don't work on secret projects.

The high court turned away challenges to background checks of low-risk employees at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., despite claims from those federal contractors that the investigations were unconstitutional because they invaded their privacy.

"We reject the argument that the government, when it requests job-related personal information in an employment background check, has a constitutional burden to demonstrate that its questions are 'necessary' or the least restrictive means of furthering its interests," Justice Samuel Alito said.

Employees said the agency was invading their privacy by requiring investigations that looked into their medical records and asked friends about their finances and sex lives. If the workers didn't agree to the checks and fill out questionnaires on Standard Form 85 (SF-85) and Form 42, they were to be fired.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is NASA's premier robotics lab, famous for sending unmanned spacecraft to Mars and the outer solar system. Unlike other NASA research centers, it's run by the California Institute of Technology. Lab scientists, engineers and staff are Caltech employees, but the campus and its buildings are owned by NASA.

A federal judge originally refused to stop NASA's background checks while the lawsuit made its way through the courts. He was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

Alito wrote, in a unanimous judgment for the Supreme Court, that the justices were not ruling on whether there was a constitutional right to "informational privacy."

"We hold, however, that whatever the scope of this interest, it does not prevent the government from asking reasonable questions of the sort included on SF-85 and Form 42 in an employment background investigation that is subject to the Privacy Act's safeguards against public disclosure," Alito said.

The lead plaintiff in the case, Robert Nelson, a senior research scientist at NASA JPL, said he was disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision, adding that it will dissuade some qualified potential employees from working at JPL. The ruling, he said, "will impact the decisions of technically gifted prospective contract employees as they decide where they choose to work. This decision will limit the size of potential scientific and technical workers available to NASA. Some will rather work somewhere else."

None of the workers who sued work on classified projects or have security clearances, though several are involved in high-profile missions, including the twin Mars rovers and the Cassini spacecraft studying Saturn and its moons.

The government has been doing background checks on all civil service employees since 1953.

In 2007, NASA extended background checks for federal employees to its contract workers in response to a presidential directive that ordered government agencies to tighten security at facilities and computer systems by issuing new identification badges for millions of civil servants and contractors. The directive came in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Form 42 alone is sent out by the government over 1.8 million times annually," Alito said.

In concurring judgments, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said they had simpler reasons for deciding against the NASA contract employees. "A federal constitutional right to 'informational privacy' does not exist," Scalia said.

Alito said this case was not appropriate for answering that question. "We therefore decide the case before us and leave broader issues for another day," he said.

The case is NASA v. Nelson, 09-530.

No second chance for man who confessed to murder

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court says a man whose lawyer didn't challenge his confession to murder will not get his sentence thrown out.

The high court on Wednesday overturned a decision by the federal appeals court in the case of Randy Moore.

Moore pleaded no contest to murder charges in the shooting death of Kenneth Rogers during a 1995 kidnapping and received a 25-year sentence in Oregon prison. He appealed, saying his lawyer should have tried to suppress his confession to police.

The state courts turned away his petition, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that his lawyer performed unreasonably.

The Supreme Court overturned that decision in a unanimous judgment written by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

"Many elect to limit risk by forgoing the right to assert their innocence," Kennedy said. "A defendant who accepts a plea bargain on counsel's advice does not necessarily suffer prejudice when his counsel fails to seek suppression of evidence."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a concurring opinion saying Moore never once said he would have resisted the plea bargain if he had been given more information by his lawyer. "For that reason, I concur in the court's judgment," she said.

Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the case because she worked on it while serving as solicitor general.

The case is Premo v. Moore, 09-658.

Published: Fri, Jan 21, 2011