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Justices Avoid Confrontation Case Over Gorsuch, Sotomayor Dissent (1)

Nov. 19, 2018, 2:45 PMUpdated: Nov. 19, 2018, 3:53 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court chose not to hear a case on the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause Nov. 19, turning away an appeal from Alabama but sparking a noteworthy dissent in the process.

In a pairing not seen yet this term, Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the court’s refusal to hear the case. This was an area of the law in which Gorsuch’s predecessor, the late Antonin Scalia, also sided with criminal defendants.

The petition from Vanessa Stuart asked the court to apply its 2011 decision in Bullcoming v. New Mexico, which dealt with introducing forensic laboratory reports at trial that contain certifications from witnesses who don’t testify. She wanted to overturn her conviction for criminally negligent homicide and driving under the influence.

Stuart complained on appeal that during her prosecution, Alabama courts allowed into evidence blood alcohol lab reports despite not having testimony from the person who performed the test and signed the reports.

Gorsuch and Sotomayor seemed to agree that was problematic.

The state “effectively denied Ms. Stuart the chance to confront the witness who supplied a foundational piece of evidence in her conviction,” Gorsuch wrote for the duo. “The engine of cross-examination was left unengaged, and the Sixth Amendment was violated.”

The two justices—who sit next to one another during oral arguments—went on to argue in dissent that another Supreme Court case on the subject, 2012’s Williams v. Illinois, has led to confusion in the lower courts that could have been cleared up by taking Stuart’s case.

“I believe we owe lower courts struggling to abide our holdings more clarity than we have afforded them in this area,” Gorsuch wrote. “The errors here may be manifest, but they are understandable and they affect courts across the country in cases that regularly recur.”

The case is Stuart v. Alabama, U.S., 17-1676, review denied 11/19/18.

((updates with dissent content) )

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com; Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com