Case: District Attorney's Office of Anchorage, AK v. Osborne

Date:Monday, March 2, 2009

Issue: Can a man who was charged for the rape and assault of woman claim his rights are being violated when having failed to challenge or order his own DNA testing at trial seek to do the same after his conviction?

Background: William Osborne and another man were convicted of raping and beating a prostitute near the Anchorage Airport. At trial, Osborne's lawyer decided against independently testing the DNA evidence gathered by investigators. Instead, it was determined that the state's broader DNA analysis was more helpful to Osborne's case. Nonetheless, the jury found him guilty and sentenced him to 26 years behind bars. After a maze of most unsuccessful appeals seeking to retest the DNA evidence, Osborne finally found success with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court reasoned Osborne has a Constitutional right to force prosecutors to release its evidence to him so he can order more detailed DNA tests. Depending on the results of those tests, a court could order a new trial. The district attorney's office says Osborne had his chance for more advanced DNA evidence at trial and shouldn't get a second crack now.

Case: Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend

Date: Monday, March 2, 2009

Issue: May a seaman recover punitive damages from his employer for injuries sustained on the job?

Background: In July 2005, Edgar Townsend was working on a tugboat when he slipped and injured his shoulder and clavicle. His bosses told him they would not cover his medical claims which under martime traditions are covered by ship-owners. Townsend sued and sought punitive damages from Atlantic Sounding. The Eleventh Circuit ruled that Townsend is able to sue for punitive damages noting a "willful and persistent failure" to covere his medical expenses. Atlantic Sound has appealed to the Supreme Court, saying the lower court ignored the proper high court precedent that would preclude Townsend's claims for punitive damages.

Case: Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company

Date: Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Issue: Did the decision by the Chief of Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court to not recuse himself from a case involving his principal financial supporter violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Background: Brent Benjamin is the chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court, having won his seat in a 2004 statewide election. The man wh is perhaps most responsible for Benjamin's spot on the court is Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Coal, one of the largest companies in the Mountaineer State. Benjamin spent $3 million in advertisements to help Benjamin's successful campaign. That amount represents 60 percent of all money spent on behalf of the Benjamin campaign. There is no argument that the donations were legal.

After the election, Blankenship's company appealed an adverse $50 million judgment to the West Virginia State Supreme Court now presided over by the man he help put there. Justice Benjamin refused to recuse himself from the case, saying there was no conflict of interest and his ability as a jurist would not impact his ability to render a fair decision. Benjamin cast the deciding vote in Massey's favor, setting aside the $50 milion judgment.

The losing side in the dispute — a collection of smaller coal companies — contends its Due Process rights were violated by Benjamin's decision to remain in the case. In its brief to the Supreme Court, they argue Benjamin's presence "created a Constituionally unacceptable probability" of bias. Lawyers for Massey Coal contend recusal is necessary only when a judge has a "pecuniary" interest in the outcome. Something they say is not at issue in this case. They also point out that Justice Benjamin has voted against them at least five other times in cases totaling in excess of $243 million. Earlier this year, Benjamin announced he would no longer take part in Massey Coal cases, saying it would be disrespectful while the matter is before the Supreme Court.

This case is seen by some interests as a prime example of why judges shouldn't be elected in the first place. The case also closely parallels the 2008 John Grisham book "The Appeal."

Case: Arthur Anderson v. Carlisle

Date: Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Issue: This case is about the availability of relief under the Federal Arbitration Act when third parties attempt to force arbitration in federal courts.

Background: After Wayne Carlisle and two associates sold their construction business they wanted help in setting up tax shelters for the proceeds of the sale. They eventually partnered with a firm called Bricolage who worked with other companies to help set up the shelter. As part of the agreement with Bricolage, Carlisle and his business partners signed a contract that provided for arbitration should a dispute pop up.

As it turned out, the IRS said the shelter was illegal and initially allowed Carlisle some extra time to make good on his tax obligations. But Carlisle says the firm the IRS reached out to never informed him of that grace period. Eventually the IRS cracked down on Carlisle for the failure to pay his original tax burden and added fines and interest all totaling in excess of $20 Million.

Carlisle sued Bricolage and eight other interests saying they were responsible for his tax mess. The arbitration agreement with Bricolage was enacted but only with Bricolage. The other eight firms were left to defend themselves in court. They argue they too should be covered by the arbitration agreement.

Case: Abuelhawa v. United States

Date: Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Issue: Whether the use of a telephone to buy drugs for personal use facilitates the commission of a drug felony, in violation of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), on the theory that the crime facilitated by the buyer is not his purchase of drugs for personal use (a misdemeanor), but is the sellers distribution of the drugs to him (a felony).

Background: Salman Khade Abuelhawa admitted to the FBI he was a cocaine user. During its investigation of another man, agents recorded a pair of phone conversations in which Abuelhawa made arrangements to purchase a gram of cocaine. Even though federal laws make personal drug use a misdemeanor, prosecutors charged Abuelhawa with a felony because of the phone conversation with the dealer. The government successfully argued that Abuelhawa's phone conversations facilitated the drug deal and therefore the Virginia man should be subject to the stiffer penalty. He was sentenced to two years probation and fined $2,000. Abuelhawa's lawyers argue the government's decision to charge their client with the felony undermines the Congressional intent of the CSA.

Case: Dean v. United States

Date: Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Issue: Federal law allows for convicted felons to serve an additional ten years behind bars if they fire a gun during the commission of a crime. Can that law still apply if there was no intent to fire the weapon?

Background: In 2004, Christopher Dean robbed $3,642 from a Georgia bank. While inside the bank the gun he was holding accidentally discharged. No one was hurt and witnesses say Dean was himself shocked when the gun went off—clearly demonstrating he lacked the intent to fire the weapon. Police officers soon arrested Dean and he was convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 8 1/3 years behind bars. But he was also given an additional ten year term in prison for firing the gun during the bank robbery. Dean unsuccessfully appealed the extra decade sentence saying the gun shot was an accident. Lower courts ruled that because Congress did not require intent as an element of the crime they are bound to follow the law allowing for the additional prison time.