Monday, December 7, 2009

Supreme Court Abolishes Michigan Trial Court*

Today, in Michigan v. Fisher, U.S. Supreme Ct. No. 09-91 (pages 11 -18), seven members of the U.S. Supreme Court decided that they were better judges of a police officer's credibility than the trial judge who heard the actual evidence.

The whole thing stems, as is often the case, from a police officer's decision to enter a house without a warrant. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing and found that the officer's belief that someone was inside the house in need of immediate aid to be objectively unreasonable. Six years later, seven judges who sit four hundred miles and three states away -- not one of whom has served as a trial judge -- disagreed. The one justice who *has* presided over any significant number of trials and evidentiary hearings, Justice Sotomayor, dissented.

The majority's rationale is captured in a sentence on the final page of its opinion: "It does not meet the needs of law enforcement or the demands of public safety to require officers to walk away from a situation like the one they encountered here." Justice Stevens dissented (joined, again, by Justice Sotomayor). "[I]t is hard to see how the Court is justified in micromanaging the day-to-day business of state tribunals making fact-intensive decisions of this kind," Justice Stevens wrote. "We ought not usurp the role of the factfinder when faced with a close question of the reasonableness of an officer’s actions, particularly in a case tried in a state court."

It's surprising that there were only two dissenting justices here. I'm ready for just about anything, but a universe in which any five justices can flip a state trial judge's findings of fact that they find disagreeable or contrary "to the needs of law enforcement", that's a bit much even for me.


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