Connick v. Thompson

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Connick v. Thompson
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued October 6, 2010
Decided March 29, 2011
Full case name Connick, District Attorney, et al. v. Thompson
Docket nos. 09-571
Citations 563 U.S. ___ (more)
131 S.Ct. 1350; 179 L.Ed.2d 417
Holding
A district attorneys office cannot be held responsible for failing to properly train its employees when the plaintiff can only prove a single violation of Brady v. Maryland; 5th Circuit reversed
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Thomas, joined by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Alito
Concurrence Scalia, joined by Alito
Dissent Ginsburg, joined by Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan

Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. ___ (2011), is a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court considered whether a prosecutor's office can be held liable for a single Brady violation by one of its members on the theory that the office provided inadequate training. The Supreme Court overturned a $14 million award by a lower court in a 5-4 decision split along ideological and partisan lines,[1] with all five Republican appointed conservatives in the majority. The minority dissent observes that, as a matter of fact, Thompson was the victim of much more pervasive misconduct by the District Attorney's office than a single Brady violation.[2] The Supreme Court found for the appellant, Harry Connick, Sr., and ruled that the prosecutor's office is not liable.[3]

Opinion of the Court[edit]

Justice Thomas wrote for the Court:

"Petitioner the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office concedes that, in prosecuting respondent Thompson for attempted armed robbery, prosecutors violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83, by failing to disclose a crime lab report. Because of his robbery conviction, Thompson elected not to testify at his later murder trial and was convicted. A month before his scheduled execution, the lab report was discovered. A reviewing court vacated both convictions, and Thompson was found not guilty in a retrial on the murder charge. He then filed suit against the district attorney’s office under 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging, inter alia, that the Brady violation was caused by the office’s deliberate indifference to an obvious need to train prosecutors to avoid such constitutional violations. The district court held that, to prove deliberate indifference, Thompson did not need to show a pattern of similar Brady violations when he could demonstrate that the need for training was obvious. The jury found the district attorney’s office liable for failure to train and awarded Thompson damages. The Fifth Circuit affirmed by an equally divided court. Held: A district attorney’s office may not be held liable under §1983 for failure to train its prosecutors based on a single Brady violation."

"(a) Plaintiffs seeking to impose §1983 liability on local governments must prove that their injury was caused by “action pursuant to official municipal policy,” which includes the decisions of a government’s lawmakers, the acts of its policy making officials, and practices so persistent and widespread as to practically have the force of law. Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U. S. 658, 691. A local government’s decision not to train certain employees about their legal duty to avoid violating citizens’ rights may rise to the level of an official government policy for §1983 purposes, but the failure to train must amount to “deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the [untrained employees] come into contact.” Canton v. Harris, 489 U. S. 378, 388. Deliberate indifference in this context requires proof that city policymakers disregarded the “known or obvious consequence” that a particular omission in their training program would cause city employees to violate citizens’ constitutional rights. Board of Comm’rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown, 520 U. S. 397, 410."

"(b) A pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is “ordinarily necessary” to demonstrate deliberate indifference. Bryan Cty., supra, at 409. Without notice that a course of training is deficient, decision makers can hardly be said to have deliberately chosen a training program that will cause violations of constitutional rights. Thompson does not contend that he proved a pattern of similar Brady violations, and four reversals by Louisiana courts for dissimilar Brady violations in the 10 years before the robbery trial could not have put the district attorney’s office on notice of the need for specific training."

"(c) Thompson mistakenly relies on the “single-incident” liability hypothesized in Canton, contending that the Brady violation in his case was the “obvious” consequence of failing to provide specific Brady training and that this “obviousness” showing can substitute for the pattern of violations ordinarily necessary to establish municipal culpability. In Canton, the Court theorized that if a city armed its police force and deployed them into the public to capture fleeing felons without training the officers in the constitutional limitation on the use of deadly force, the failure to train could reflect the city’s deliberate indifference to the highly predictable consequence, namely, violations of constitutional rights. Failure to train prosecutors in their Brady obligations does not fall within the narrow range of Can-ton’s hypothesized single-incident liability. The obvious need for specific legal training present in Canton’s scenario—police academy applicants are unlikely to be familiar with constitutional constraints on deadly force and, absent training, cannot obtain that knowledge—is absent here. Attorneys are trained in the law and equipped with the tools to interpret and apply legal principles, understand constitutional limits, and exercise legal judgment. They receive training before entering the profession, must usually satisfy continuing education requirements, often train on the job with more experienced attorneys, and must satisfy licensing standards and ongoing ethical obligations. Prosecutors not only are equipped but are ethically bound to know what Brady entails and to perform legal research when they are uncertain. Thus, recurring constitutional violations are not the “obvious consequence” of failing to provide prosecutors with formal in-house training. The nuance of the allegedly necessary training also distinguishes the case from the example in Canton. Here, the prosecutors were familiar with the general Brady rule. Thus, Thompson cannot rely on the lack of an ability to cope with constitutional situations that underlies the Canton hypothetical, but must assert that prosecutors were not trained about particular Brady evidence or the specific scenario related to the violation in his case. That sort of nuance simply cannot support an inference of deliberate indifference here. Contrary to the holding below, it does not follow that, because Brady has gray areas and some Brady decisions are difficult, prosecutors will so obviously make wrong decisions that failing to train them amounts, as it must, to “a decision by the city itself to violate the Constitution.” Canton, 489 U. S., at 395 (O’Connor, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part)."[3]

Subsequent developments[edit]

The New York Times opined that "Justice Ginsburg's dissent is the more persuasive...",[4] and the Los Angeles Times wrote that "[t]he court got this one wrong."[5] Nina Totenberg wrote that "a bitterly divided U.S. Supreme Court all but closed the door" to prosecutors being held liable for damages when prosecutors violate the law to deprive a person of a fair trial.[6] Dahlia Lithwick wrote "Both Thomas and Scalia have produced what can only be described as a master class in human apathy. Their disregard for the facts of Thompson's thrashed life and near-death emerges as a moral flat line...only by willfully ignoring that entire trial record can [Scalia] and Thomas reduce the entire constitutional question to a single misdeed by a single bad actor."[7] Radley Balko noted that "...[t]here's something pretty unsavory about a judicial philosophy that cites a ruling that we now know sent an innocent man back to prison as an authority to deny compensation to another innocent man who was nearly executed because the government hid the evidence that would have and eventually did exonerate him."[8] Kieran Healy called the tone of the majority opinion "spiteful", and the decision a "Lord Denning Moment" for the court. Healy continued, "[t]he conservative majority preferred to affirm an obvious wrong rather than face the appalling vista of a brutal and corrupt justice system."[9] Andrew Cohen called the majority's argument a "warped rationale."[10] Wendy Kaminer wrote that "...what's striking about this case, aside from the majority's apparent indifference to practical realities and the actual sufferings of an innocent man wrongfully sentenced to die, is its indifference to the facts of the case outlined by Justice Ginsburg's dissent."[11] Bennett Gershman and Joel Cohen called the majority's reasoning "bizarre," and wrote that "[Ginsburg's] dissent was so contemptuous of the majority's decision that it provoked a gratuitous concurring opinion from Justice Scalia in a likely effort to seek to legitimize the majority opinion from her savage rebuke."[12] Writing for the American Constitution Society, Brandon Garrett called the ruling "chilling" and the majority's arguments "formalistic and circular."[13]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Bandes, Susan A. (2012). "The Lone Miscreant, the Self-Training Prosecutor, and Other Fictions: A Comment on Connick v. Thompson". Fordham Law Review 80. SSRN 1842963. 
  • Laurin, Jennifer E. (2011). "Prosecutorial Exceptionalism, Remedial Skepticism, and the Legacy of Connick v. Thompson". U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 202. SSRN 1934250. 
  • Moore, Janet (2012). "Opening the Black Box: Democracy and Criminal Discovery Reform after Connick v. Thompson and Garcetti v. Ceballos". Brooklyn Law Review 77. SSRN 1942939. 
  • Autry, Hannah (2012). "Connick v. Thompson: The Costs of Valuing Immunity over Innocence". Nat'l Law. Guild Rev. 69 (1): 29.