Truthseeking and Criminal Procedure in the Supreme Court’s Last Term
Many thanks to Concurring Opinions and Dan Solove for inviting me to guest blog and to Dan for the kind introduction. I look forward to the visit and am excited to be part of C.O.’s talented and diverse group of bloggers.
As the Supreme Court’s term has just ended, I could not help but comment briefly on some of the Court’s pronouncements on criminal procedure. Because of my interest in comparative criminal procedure, I was curious to observe how in several recent opinions (Herring v. United States; Montejo v. Louisiana; Kansas v. Ventris), the Court suggested that “truthseeking” was a central concern of our criminal justice system and may trump individual liberties in certain cases. Specifically, the Court construed the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule more narrowly than before, out of concern that these individual rights and remedies interfere with the goal of truthseeking. For those familiar with the “inquisitorial” systems of continental Europe, the focus on truthseeking would sound familiar. European courts have long emphasized the preeminence of the search for truth in the criminal process. But is the adversarial American criminal justice system moving toward a new understanding of its goals, similar to that prevalent in inquisitorial systems? Are we moving away from our entrenched “anti-inquisitorialism“?
One of the latest decisions of the term suggests that truthseeking does not always win the battle. In D.A.’s Office v. Osborne (a 5 to 4 decision), the Court denied the existence of a due process right to DNA evidence after conviction. In that case, the State of Alaska conceded that there was no reason to doubt that the retesting of the evidence requested by Osborne would conclusively establish his guilt or innocence. If Obsorne were to be proven innocent, the retesting could also help determine the true offender.
The only reason given by Alaska for denying Osborne access to the DNA evidence was that it would interfere with the state’s interest in finality. The Court’s majority agreed and also declared its reluctance to interfere with Alaska’s decision by creating a federal constitutional right to access DNA after conviction. The Court acknowledged that 47 states and the federal government already provide for such access. It was interesting to note that both the majority and the minority made this point in favor of their position-the majority as a reason to defer to local democratic processes which are already addressing the question, and the minority to show that a consensus has emerged that post-conviction DNA access is part of our shared understanding of fundamental fairness.
In the end, for five justices, truthseeking was outweighed by the interest in finality of judgments and deference to states. If the 2008-09 term is any indication, the Court seems inclined to elevate the position of truthseeking relative to individual rights. But the Court is willing to let it take a back seat when it believes that it too severely threatens state prerogatives or the efficiency of the criminal justice system.