“There has been for decades now an ideological split at the United States Supreme Court over the Sixth Amendment’s right to a speedy trial — one of the most basic of due process rights. Court conservatives have successfully limited the scope of the right by justifying and forgiving unconscionable delays in bringing criminal defendants to trial. And the Court’s progressives, outnumbered now for a generation, have complained not just about the unjust results of those cases but about the indigent defense systems which have fostered trial delays in the first place.
And so it is again. On Monday, in a case styled Boyer v. Louisiana, none of the Court’s five conservative justices were willing to come to the aid of a man who had to wait seven years between his arrest and his trial because of a “funding crisis” within Louisiana’s indigent defense program. In fact, those five justices refused even to render a ruling on the merits of the matter, instead deciding after oral argument and all the briefing in the case that their earlier decision to accept the matter for review was “improvident.”
It was left to Justice Samuel Alito to defend the Court’s inaction. The long delay in bringing Jonathan Edward Boyer to trial on murder charges was not just the fault of Louisiana and its infamously underfunded and understaffed indigent defense program, Justice Alito concluded. “[‘T]he record shows that the single largest share of the delay in this case was the direct result of defense requests for continuances, that other defense motions caused substantial additional delay, and that much of the rest of the delay was caused by events beyond anyone’s control,” he wrote. That was enough to deny Boyer’s claims.
All four of the Court’s progressives disagreed. The majority’s quick assessment of the facts and the record was flawed, they wrote, and by ducking the issue on its merits the Supreme Court abdicated its responsibility not just to the defendant in the case but to thousands of other criminal defendants in Louisiana who are similarly too poor to pay for their own attorneys. “The Court’s silence in this case is particularly unfortunate,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a sharp dissent. “Conditions of this kind cannot persist without endangering constitutional rights.””
The Supreme Court brushes away a man who waited seven years to get his case before a judge.
Read it all: Do Louisianans Have the Right to a Speedy Trial?