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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)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Supreme Court began its new term Monday with an inquisitive new justice and a case from Maryland about how long police must honor a suspect's request for an attorney.

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Justice Sonia Sotomayor displayed no reticence on the first day of her first term on the court; in the two cases on the docket, she asked as many questions and made as many comments as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. The only sign of her newness was that she at times forgot to turn on her microphone before posing a question.

President Obama's appointee to the court was far more active Monday than in her first hearing as a justice, when the court held a special rehearing last month on a campaign finance case.

Sotomayor, a former prosecutor, was part of an animated bench for the first case of the 2009-2010 term. That case asks whether a suspect's request for an attorney means that police cannot question him again years later if more information in the case becomes available.

Michael Blaine Shatzer was imprisoned at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown for child sexual abuse in 2003 when police asked him about allegations in another case: that he had sexually abused his 3-year-old son.

Shatzer refused to answer questions and asked for a lawyer. A police officer stopped the questioning, and the case went dormant.

Nearly three years later, Shatzer's son was old enough to offer new details, and a different police officer returned to prison to question Shatzer. This time, he waived his Miranda rights and made incriminating statements that led to his conviction.

But the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, said Shatzer's statements could not be used. It pointed to a 28-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that said once a suspect asks for an attorney, "he is not subject to further questioning until a lawyer has been made available or the suspect himself reinitiates conversation."

The rule was to protect a suspect from self-incrimination in case police tried to badger him into a confession before he, as Justice Antonin Scalia said Monday, "lawyered up."

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, supported by the United States, said there was no allegation in Shatzer's case that police badgered him into a confession. He said that police should be able to question a suspect again once there is a "break in custody" -- in this case, that police stopped questioning Shatzer and released him back into the prison's general population.

In that case, Gansler said, police were free to ask him again about the molestation allegations and use his statements, since he did not ask for an attorney the second time.

Justices seemed generally supportive of Gansler's point that police should have been allowed to question Shatzer again, but they had a hard time agreeing on how the rule should be changed.


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