Crime, Immigration, Intellectual Property, Patents, SCOTUS, State Judges, Supreme Court

Today at the Supreme Court: Mistakes Were Made

The facts in today’s Supreme Court opinions read like a bloopers reel of our courts system. What do we do when judges are wrong on the law in a criminal case? What if a plaintiff decides, after losing, that he filed in a state court when the state court didn’t have jurisdiction? What if a lawyer doesn’t tell his client that by pleading guilty he’s going to be deported?

As Yakov Smirnoff would say, “What a country!

Evans v. Michigan — Burning Down the House (Or Not)

Based on some things that broke bad one night in Detroit, Lamar Evans was charged in Michigan state court with burning “other real property.” The state put on evidence that he had burned down an unoccupied house.

The trial judge decided that burning an unoccupied house doesn’t count as burning “other real property.” There’s one statute for burning down a house and another, separate statute for burning down some other kind of building. As the trial court saw it, if you’re guilty of one, you’re not guilty of the other.

Only where you have the quantity of burnable yet uninhabited buildings as they do in Detroit does this begin to make sense as a way to codify the arson. But okay.

Based on that reading of the law, the trial judge granted a directed verdict for Evans.

Turns out — oops –the trial judge was wrong. Burning down “other real property” is a lesser included offense of burning down a house. So the state didn’t have to prove that the thing that was burned down was not a house (though if it had been inclined to, it would have been able to pursue a greater penalty).

Evans goes free based on a trial judge’s misapprehension of the law. Can he be tried again?

That is the question that the Supreme Court decided today in Michigan v. Evans.

The Double Jeopardy Clause says you can’t be tried for the same offense twice. Michigan wanted a “do over” exception for when the acquittal was based on a trial judge’s mistake of law.

The Court said nope, in an opinion by Justice Sotomayor:

A mistaken acquittal is an acquittal nonetheless, and we have long held that “[a] verdict of acquittal . . . could not be reviewed, on error or otherwise, without putting [a defendant] twice in jeopardy, and thereby violating the Constitution.” United States v. Ball, 163 U. S. 662, 671 (1896).

Justice Alito dissented. Of course he did; a defendant won a criminal case.

Gunn v. Minton — The Federal Courts’ Exclusive Patent Jurisdiction Isn’t As Exclusive As You Might Think

Vernon Minton had an idea: he would develop a computer program that would make securities trading easier. Through elbow grease and ingenuity, he developed his system.

Then he leased the system, known as TEXCEN, to a securities brokerage.

A little more than a year later, Minton applied for a patent for his idea. (Patent prosecution firms are now grimacing at the “a little more than a year later” part of this, seeing what’s coming next.)

The patent issued.

Minton then happily went to federal court to bring a patent infringement action against NASD and NASDAQ.

Minton lost the suit. The court held that the patent was invalid because TEXCEN was on sale more than a year before Minton filed for his patent.

Minton filed a motion to reconsider. He lost.

He filed an appeal. He lost.

Minton was unhappy with this. He did the only thing he thought he had left: he sued his lawyer.

The suit was brought in state court, and his lawyer won summary judgment.

Minton, who must at least be admired for his perseverance, then appealed.

On appeal, he argued that because the malpractice suit involved a patent, it had to have been brought in federal court. So, he wanted the case dismissed so that he could refile it in federal court.

He lost that argument before the Court of Appeals of Texas. The Supreme Court of Texas gave Minton a brief win, but today, in an opinion by the Chief Justice, a unanimous Supreme Court took that win away.

There’s no question that federal courts have jurisdiction over cases “arising under any Act of Congress relating to patents.” And there’s no question that this jurisdiction is exclusive; Congress took patent cases away from state courts.

But, of course, a malpractice case originates in state law — not from an Act of Congress.

The rest of the opinion is riveting if you teach Federal Courts. And if you’re a law student yet to take Federal Courts, please do enjoy the case when you read it there.

To streamline things, there’s a four-factor test, and the Court concluded as follows:

[W]e are comfortable concluding that state legal malpractice claims based on underlying patent matters will rarely, if ever, arise under federal patent law for purposes of § 1338(a). Although such cases may necessarily raise disputed questions of patent law, those cases are by their nature unlikely to have the sort of significance for the federal system necessary to establish jurisdiction.

In Gunn v. Minton, the Supreme Court determined that Minton, finally, is out of places to take his patent infringement claim.

Chaidez v. United States — Bad Advice Only Goes So Far

In another case this morning, the Supreme Court held that the rule announced in Padilla (no, not the dirty bomb guy, another Padilla) is not retroactive.

So, if you’re here and not a citizen, and you’re thinking of pleading guilty to a crime, the Supreme Court has said that your lawyer is required to visit with you about the immigration consequences of your plea.

Your lawyer is also not supposed to give you incorrect legal advice, like, “You can’t be convicted of attempted murder if the victim was shot below the waist,” or “The police cannot arrest a husband and a wife for the same crime.”

So, if your lawyer tells you that you won’t be deported, and is wrong, the Supreme Court previously, in Padilla, held that you can undo the conviction based on your lawyer’s bad advice – because your right to effective counsel, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, is so important that you need to preserve it.

Though, lest you get carried away, today in Chaidez v. United States the Court held that the Sixth Amendment right isn’t so important that it applies retroactively.


Matt Kaiser is a lawyer at The Kaiser Law Firm PLLC, which handles complex civil litigation, white collar investigations, and federal criminal cases. On his blog, The Federal Criminal Appeals Blog, he writes about published opinions in criminal cases in the federal circuits where the defendant wins. You can reach him by email at mattkaiser@thekaiserlawfirm, and you can follow him on Twitter: @mattkaiser.

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