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Scalia, Sotomayor Exchange Barbs in High Court Ruling

Sparing no arrow from his rhetorical quiver, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia fired away in dissent of Monday's 6-2 ruling that puts a Michigan man back on the hook for a drug murder and casts doubt on the reach of a hallmark opinion penned by the court's longest serving member.

Scalia called Monday's decision a "mistake," "patently incorrect," "incoherent" and a "gross distortion of the law."

Over time, all members of the high court have been subjected to Scalia's caustic writings. This time it was Justice Sonia Sotomayor who was responsible for articulating the court's position--joined by five of her colleagues--that the comments made by a victim hours before he died were admissible during the trial of his shooter.

The decision drew a fiery response from Scalia who said the ruling "distorts our Confrontation Clause jurisprudence and leaves it in a shambles. Instead of clarifying the law, the Court makes itself the obfuscator of last resort."

Scalia's 2004 opinion in Crawford v. Washington is considered one of his hallmarks and places great weight on a defendant's right to confront all witnesses at trial. Monday's ruling undoubtedly weakened that precedent, though to what extent remains to be seen. Nonetheless, any diminution of Crawford's impact is sure to draw Scalia's wrath.

Monday's case came down to the circumstances surrounding the comments Anthony Covington made to police officers as he lay on the ground bleeding in a gas station parking lot with mortal gunshot wounds to his abdomen. He told police that Rick Bryant had shot him at Bryant's house 25 minutes before the officers arrived at the gas station where Covington ended up after fleeing the shooting scene.

The court's majority concluded that Bryant's statements to the police were made during an "ongoing emergency" as officers were trying to figure out what was happening. The court said the comments could be used at trial because the primary purpose of those comments was "to enable the police to meet an ongoing emergency" rather than an effort to extract information as part of an investigation, such as an interrogation.

In determining the admissibility of Covington's statements, Scalia said the majority was wrong to give equal consideration to the intent of the police questioning and Covington's responses. Instead, he argued, what mattered was the intent behind the victim’s comments. "From Covington's perspective, his statement had little value except to ensure the arrest and eventual prosecution of Richard Bryant," Scalia declared. He said Covington knew that whatever emergency had existed ended 25 minutes earlier and six blocks away.

Sotomayor said Scalia's analysis was simplistic and could improperly put a restraint on judges trying to assess all relevant information, "including the statements and actions of interrogators."

It wasn't the only barb Sotomayor sent Scalia's way. She said the victim's dialogue with the police indicated an emergency situation more widespread than what Scalia recounted. "Unlike the dissent's apparent ability to read Covington's mind...we rely on the available evidence, which suggests that Covington perceived an ongoing threat."

Sotomayor's opinion was joined in full by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito. Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the result of the case but wrote separately to say, "Covington's questioning by police lacked sufficient formality and solemnity for his statements to be considered 'testimonial.'"

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote her own dissent agreeing with Scalia that the ruling "confounds our recent Confrontation Clause jurisprudence." Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the case.

At the end of his dissent, Scalia said Bryant probably received his "just deserts." But expressed concern that the court abrogated his constitutional protections. "And what has been taken away from him has been taken away from us all."