The Impact of Buttons

Saturday, December 16, 2006

In a somewhat surprising 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals erred when it ordered a new trial for a murder defendant whose victim's relatives wore buttons with the victim's picture on them at his trial.

The Ninth Circuit believed Mathew Musladin was denied his right to a fair trial because the buttons were prejudicial, and because they were in plain view of the jury, the said buttons may have influenced the jury's verdict.

Without deciding if the buttons could have indeed had that effect, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision because the Ninth Circuit didn't apply a legal principle the Supreme Court had adopted.

In a way the High Court dodged the issue because it didn't set a clear principle or standard for wearing buttons at a defendant's trial. The likely reason is because the opinion's author - polarizing Justice Clarence Thomas - might not have had enough votes on his side had he tried to convince them that it's reasonable in most or all circumstances to wear buttons at a defendant's trial.

Instead, Justice Thomas utilized the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which states that a writ of habeas corpus "shall not be granted" by a federal court unless a state court issued a decision "that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States."

Taking that avenue the justices determined that the Ninth Circuit was wrong in granting habeas corpus because the state court that tried and convicted Musladin didn't run contrary to federal law.

Musladin was convicted in 1994 of killing his estranged wife's boyfriend, Tom Studer. At his trial, Musladin's lawyer objected to the buttons that were worn by the victim's family. The judge however, said the buttons presented "no possible prejudice to the defendant."

A California appeals court agreed and upheld the conviction because they saw the buttons as nothing more than a sign of "normal grief" by the family. The first federal court to look at the case also upheld the conviction, until it finally got thrown out when it got to the predictably liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals based in San Francisco.

I am positive Justice Thomas would have written a broader decision if he could have that would have permitted buttons at trials because victims' relatives have a right to grieve in public. The decision to wear those buttons should be allowed if they aren't prejudicing the jury or influencing the outcome of the trial.

But waiting in the wings were Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy and David H. Souter who wrote separately and did not sign Justice Thomas's opinion because they wanted to explore the possibility that such buttons could be a problem in the courtroom.

With Justice Kennedy being viewed as the critical swing vote on a lot of cases that stand 4-4 before his vote, the more conservative justices such as Thomas have to be careful in their writings if they don't want to lose him. And in the attempt to appease Justice Kennedy the justices sometimes have to write narrowly enough to also satisfy the remaining members of the court.

Should the Supreme Court eventually get to decide if wearing buttons in court is permissible? I see no problem with them. A jury is going to see the grieving family anyway, and if that doesn't influence their verdict I don't see how the addition of an attached button is going to either.

You can read the decision here.