In Supreme Court cases, the majority and dissent sometimes talk right past one another, framing the question for decision so differently that they almost seem to be writing about different cases. See, e.g., the dueling opinions earlier this week in Connick v. Thompson (No. 09-571). Thompson was convicted of attempted armed robbery and murder, and then sentenced to death. A month before his execution, a bloodstained swatch of cloth came to light that proved Thompson was not the perpetrator in the robbery prosecution. The murder charge was eventually retried, and Thompson was acquitted. In all, he served 18 years in prison based on his wrongful convictions. Moreover, it turns out that an assistant district attorney who was part of the team that prosecuted Thompson deliberately withheld the swatch. The District Attorney’s office now concedes that Thompson’s constitutional rights were violated under Brady v. Maryland. The question now is whether the DA’s office should be civilly liable to Thompson for this violation.
Prior cases interpreting 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (the federal civil rights law Thompson invoked in his lawsuit) reject vicarious liability for the government when a government employee violates consitutional rights; in order to recover, as matters unfolded, Thompson was obliged to show that the District Attorney had been deliberately indifferent to a need to train his subordinates regarding their Brady responsibilities. Prior cases also establish that a “failure to train” claim must ordinarily be based on multiple violations of constitutional rights; a single violation, such as that suffered by Thompson, would require extraordinary circumstances to justify relief.
So much everyone agreed on. Continue reading “Connick v. Thompson: Both Answers Are Right — What Was the Question Again?”