Monday, April 9, 2012

The Interplay Between State and Federal Courts

By Dana A. Vitarelli
Dana Vitarelli, a third-year law student at Albany Law School, is originally from Monroe, New York. She graduated magna cum laude from the State University of New York at Geneseo, majoring in Psychology. While at law school, she has worked at the United States Attorney's Office for the Northern District of New York as well as Albany Medical College. Dana is currently the Research and Writing Editor and Business Manager for the Journal of Science & Technology and Chair of the Domenick L. Gabrielli Appellate Advocacy Competition for the Moot Court Editorial Board.
This essay was prepared for the State Constitutional Adjudication Seminar, Spring 2012.

Stewart Pollock discusses that the basic principle of the relation between state and federal courts is that the two judicial systems are together responsible for protecting and upholding constitutional rights.[1] He says that respect for state court decisions by the United States Supreme Court is “essential to the continuing vitality of the dual judicial system.” He goes on to state that while the outcome of a case may vary based on the forum in which it is decided, state and federal courts are ultimately joined in a partnership with the purpose of protecting individual rights and liberties. It is paramount for each system to have independence and respect for one another while still working together in order to form an effective partnership. It is through this partnership that deference by the United States Supreme Court concerning state court decisions, primarily based in state law, has become a vital part of federal jurisprudence.

Pollock continues with this idea and says that by respecting these judgments, the United States Supreme Court regards state courts as “partners in the federalist system.” This respect is extremely evident when the outcome of a case would have differed using the federal constitution. The landmark case of Michigan v. Long removed any ambiguity in the United States Supreme Court's previous approach to determining the independence of a state court decision.[2] According to Long, a state court that discusses federal law must make a “plain statement” asserting that it used the federal law for guidance only in order to avoid review of its decision.

Robert Utter  expands upon Pollock’s “partnership” theory and discusses the fact that state courts have made “great contributions to the growth of federal constitutional law.”[3] He mentions the fact that state courts have interpreted their state constitutional provisions long before the United States Supreme Court examined its federal counterparts. He also states that the Supreme Court has recognized the “importance of the variety, breadth, and depth of state court analysis … in its own decisions.”

Utter says a positive between the dynamic of the Supreme Court and state courts is that construction of federal constitutional issues will make the provisions more marked to the community at large and will expound upon the “breadth of experience from which the Supreme Court can draw when making decisions which impact the nation as a whole.” Because federal courts only hear a small number of cases that involve federal rights, state court involvement becomes an essential part of the development and execution of federalism. As more state courts begin truly examining their own constitutions, they will have to figure out which one of the numerous approaches to state constitutional analysis is most beneficial for them to achieve the goal of providing their citizens with the “protections contemplated by the drafters of those constitutions.”

Utter goes on to describe the benefits of one approach; “[t]he dual approach, which not only relies on the state constitution but also recognizes and integrates the role and function of the state court and state sovereignty in our federal system, may well offer courts the best opportunity to realize that goal.” To participate in such an examination, state judges must clarify why they believe it is important to interpret the federal provision and be mindful to separate that explanation from their analysis of the state provision in order to comply with the criteria in Michigan v. Long.

While Pollock and Utter discuss the benefits of the state and federal “partnership,” Vincent Bonventre takes a different view on this relation between state and federal courts. He states what seems to be a true, but counterintuitive principle—that despite the Supreme Court's frequently self-confessed deference to the states and respect for state supreme courts, the United States Supreme Court, in reality, has very little hesitation in reviewing a decision of a state supreme court, even where the state court has actually protected constitutional rights.[4] He mentions that the Supreme Court rarely reviewed these decisions in the past and now the only question on appeal before the United States Supreme Court is whether the state court protected a right too much, or protected an asserted right that the Supreme Court does not believe is entitled to protection at all.

Bonventre goes on to state that “[t]hese cases are hardly the type that a Supreme Court that has served as the national guardian of our rights and liberties—the ultimate protector of constitutional guarantees—would care to spend its sharply reduced caseload reviewing.” There is only one reason that rights-protective decisions of state courts are even subject to the United States Supreme Court's review and that is because state courts are writing these decisions in such a way that the Supreme Court can find at least an iota of federal law involved, which becomes extremely important due to the Michigan v. Long decision.

The two cases I will discuss in light of these principles are People v. Scott and State of Maine v. Roberts. In Scott, the defendant was convicted on his guilty plea of criminal possession of marihuana.[5] The Appellate Division affirmed, agreeing with the County Court's conclusion that “defendant's act of posting no trespassing signs about every 20 to 30 feet around the perimeter of his property, which consisted of 165 acres of rural, hilly, undeveloped, uncultivated fields and woodlands except for defendant's cultivation of marihuana thereon, [did not establish] an expectation of privacy cognizable under the right to privacy protection of the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution and article I, section 12 of the NY Constitution.” The majority goes on to mention some precedent and ultimately holds that the Oliver v. United States[6] ruling does not adequately protect fundamental constitutional rights and therefore the Court of Appeals declined to adopt that precedent.

The Court then reversed the lower court decision stating that for the purpose of protection from unreasonable searches and seizures under the New York Constitution, landowners who fence or post “No Trespassing” signs on their private property or somehow indicate unambiguously that entry is not permitted, have a reasonable expectation of privacy that they will be free from unwanted intrusions. Here, the New York Court of Appeals decided to use their state constitution rather than following the United States Supreme Court precedent in Oliver.

In the case of State of Maine v. Roberts, the defendant was convicted in the District Court of operating a vehicle while under the influence.[7] Roberts was arrested after an officer observed him driving erratically, smelled alcohol on his breath, and noticed other indications of intoxication. After Roberts was charged, the officer read him the statutory “implied consent” form. By statute, officers are instructed to give a specific set of warnings in order to permit refusal to submit to testing admissible in court. Roberts refused to submit to chemical testing to measure his blood-alcohol level and asked permission to call his lawyer for advice on whether to submit to a test, but the officer did not allow him to do so.

Roberts correctly asserted that the warnings do not reflect the full range of penalties imposed for non-compliance. This is because in 1987 the statute was amended to make refusal to submit to a test an aggravating factor and to invoke a mandatory minimum sentence of incarceration for such refusal; this change, however, was not reflected in the warnings given to the defendant.

The United States Supreme Court has held that a state may compel a suspect to submit to a chemical test without violating the federal Constitution. In South Dakota v. Neville, the Court reasoned that allowing the suspect to choose whether to submit to testing was “a matter of grace” given by the state legislature and, hence, not subject to constitutional protections. [8] Therefore, failure to warn a suspect of all the consequences of refusal to submit to a test did not violate the Due Process Clause.

Using this precedent, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine noted that the right to a warning of the consequences of refusing a chemical test is not one of constitutional dimensions and that the Court is without authority to expand the warning to include the full range of potential penalties and does not need to do so as it does not violate Due Process. In this instance, the state court is deferring to the federal precedent to give the defendant fewer protections.[9]

In looking at these writings, it seems Pollock and Utter have a more idealized version of the relation between federal and state courts than does Bonventre. Bonventre is a bit more realistic in looking at the duality of the court system. However, it is likely that even all 50 states have a different view of the interplay between state and federal law. This is evident in looking to the cases themselves. In one instance, People v. Scott, the New York court keeps with state law and in the other, State of Maine v. Roberts, the Maine court follows federal law. It seems obvious but it is apparent that the courts will use whatever tool necessary to obtain the outcome they desire in the case whether that is relying on federal constitutional provisions or their own state constitutional provisions.

While the relation between state and federal courts is an important one as Pollock and Utter mention, the case of Michigan v. Long, which all three authors mention, seemed to throw a wrench in the bond between the state and federal systems. As Bonventre mentions, the United States Supreme Court can, and will, intercept a state court case if there is any “scintilla” of federal law analysis. This has forced state courts to include that “plain statement” in order to maintain their autonomy in the judicial system, which seems to sever the bond of this “partnership.”

[1] Stewart G. Pollock, Adequate and Independent State Grounds as a Means of Balancing the Relationship Between State and Federal Courts, 63 Tex. L. Rev. 977 (1985).
[2] Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983).
[3] Robert F. Utter, Swimming in the Jaws of the Crocodile: State Court Comment on Federal Constitutional Issues When Disposing of Cases on State Constitutional Grounds, 63 Tex. L. Rev. 1025 (1985).
[4] Vincent Martin Bonventre, Changing Roles: The Supreme Court and the State High Courts in Safeguarding Rights, 70 Alb. L. Rev. 841 (2007).
[5] Scott, 79 N.Y.2d 474 (1992).
[6] Oliver, 466 U.S. 170 (1984).
[7] Roberts, 609 A.2d 702 (Me. 1992).
[8] Neville, 459 U.S. 553 (1983).
[9] The defendant in this case petitioned for a writ of Habeas Corpus and the decision was reversed in the United States District Court for the District of Maine.  However, this paper addressed the state court decision only.