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Sotomayor Takes Active Role on Court's First Day

People wait outside the Supreme Court for the start of a new session. The justices heard one case based in Maryland.
People wait outside the Supreme Court for the start of a new session. The justices heard one case based in Maryland. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)

Roberts worried that police could repeatedly question and dismiss a suspect who asks for a lawyer.

"You know, just sort of catch-and-release, until he finally breaks down and says, 'All right, I'll talk,' " Roberts said.

Public defender Celia A. Davis, representing Shatzer, said the court should not change a rule that sets clear guidelines for law enforcement.

Creating exceptions, she said, "introduces uncertainty into the determinations of what constitutes custody and what length of time might be adequate to excuse the protection."

But the justices wondered what could be done about a suspect who asks for a lawyer, never actually receives one or is convicted, and then is questioned years later, perhaps for a different crime.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. posed this hypothetical: What if someone was arrested for joy riding in Maryland, invoked his Fifth Amendment protection, and was never convicted? Could police in Montana question him as a murder suspect in Montana 10 years later?

When Davis said no, Alito replied: "And you don't think that's a ridiculous application of the rule?"

When Alito raised the hypothetical ante to a crime committed 40 years later, Sotomayor joined in.

"He is arrested for joy riding, he is let go, and you are saying that for 20, 40 years he is now immunized from being re-approached by the police?" Sotomayor asked.

The case is Maryland v. Shatzer.

Sotomayor's active questioning was in tune with her reputation on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York. But all the justices -- save Justice Clarence Thomas, whose custom is not to ask questions at oral arguments -- were unusually involved in the session.

Some of them sat in new spots because of the court's tradition for seating the justices by seniority. Thomas chatted frequently with new seatmate Scalia, and he and Justice Stephen G. Breyer spent time looking from their new vantage points at something on the ceiling.

Likewise, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg frequently talked to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, as she now sits to his immediate left.

Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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