Supreme Court Gets Wingnuttier

by Brien Jackson

You can’t make this stuff up:

In 1993, William Osburne was convicted of kidnapping, assaulting and raping a woman in Anchorage, Alaska. He spent the next 14 years of his life behind bars. Osburne insists that he is innocent, the State of Alaska has in its possession DNA evidence which will once and for all prove his guilt or innocence, and Osburne has offered to pay for DNA testing out of his own pocket. Allowing Osburne to prove—or disprove–his claim of innocence will cost Alaska literally nothing.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court held today in a 5-4 decision by Chief Justice Roberts that Osburne is out of luck. Although Roberts conceded that “[i]t is now often possible to determine whether a biological tissue matches a suspect with near certainty,” he determined that Osburne has no right to pay for a test that could exonerate him for a crime he did not commit. Allowing Osburne to prove his potential innocence, Roberts said, risks “unnecessarily overthrowing the established system of criminal justice.”

I was going to compare the decision to Dred Scott, but that’s not really fair; Dred Scott was probably decided correctly given the law of the day. But there really isn’t anyway to defend this decision, and I’d be very interested in seeing how someone tried to defend it. Scott Lemieux seems to classify it as a case of federalism run amok but, assuming some level of seriousness by the Justices, I’m really not sure how that could be the case. The 14th amendment pretty clearly extends the due process requirement to the states, which would trump any “state’s rights” claim, it would seem. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Justices decided to just ignore the plain text (ignoring the ver existence of the 9th amendment is a cornerstone of conservative legal theory after all), or that the conservative members onthe court simply don’t think due process includes the right to present exonerating evidence in court.

It seems to me, however, that this is probably just an isolated case, and the Justices are primarily concerned with protecting the image of the criminal justice system. If the decision is absurd (and it is), it’s really not that much more absurd than the nature of the system itself, which prizes process over truth, and then tilts heavily in its own favor upon conviction.