Monday, January 30, 2006

"Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice": a rare look at a flawed appellate court

The San Jose Mercury News has a sobering series of articles up under the title Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice." (Hat tip: Arbitrary and Capricious.) Of particular interest is the attention paid to the criminal appellate courts. From the first article in the series:

The 6th District Court of Appeal, the primary court of review for Santa Clara County cases, upheld verdicts in more than 100 cases even as it acknowledged errors had occurred. The appellate court simply concluded those errors made no difference in the outcome of the case. Sometimes those conclusions were appropriate, but a review of the appellate record and consultations with experts established that in more than 50 cases the court misstated facts, twisted logic and devised questionable rationales to dismiss the error.

In nearly all the cases, the 6th District designates its opinions as ``not to be published'' -- a distinction that means they are not to be cited as legal authority in subsequent cases, and thus have little relevance beyond the parties to a case. The Mercury News found that higher courts are extremely unlikely to review unpublished opinions, making the 6th District the final word on most criminal trials in Santa Clara County.

It is nice to see scrutiny given to every stage of the criminal process, and not just the trial itself. I do not think I have ever read another article even discussing the role of an intermediate criminal appellate court--yet the Mercury News article manages not only to shine a light on a dark area of the process, but it does so in a way that levels serious criticism in a fair manner. Well worth a read.