Federal Workers Must Tell Truth, Court Says
By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that federal workers who deny a job-related misconduct charge can be separately charged and disciplined for lying.
The justices rejected a claim that the practice violates a person's right to due process of law and means that any time a worker must respond to an allegation during an agency investigation, he or she risks a separate false-statement charge if the whole truth is not told. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court that workers "cannot with impunity knowingly and willfully answer with a falsehood."
Separately, the justices ruled by a 6 to 3 vote in a Virginia capital case that a judge need not instruct a jury about mitigating evidence that might persuade it to give a defendant life in prison rather than death. The justices, also ruling 6 to 3, struck down a New York law that allows in-state residents to deduct alimony payments but denies the deduction to nonresidents filing New York returns.
The federal employees' case was brought by six workers who were disciplined for misconduct and subject to extra sanctions for making false statements, including the lead challenger in the case, Lester E. Erickson, a police officer at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. During an investigation into "mad laugher" harassing telephone calls at the agency, Erickson said he did not know who was making the calls. Eventually, it was discovered that Erickson had encouraged someone to make a call. The bureau wanted to fire him for his part in the incident and for lying about it, but the federal Merit Systems Protection Board disallowed the double punishment and reduced his sanction of firing to a 15-day suspension.
When the government appealed, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said an employee cannot be charged for making a false statement when it involves the denial of another charge. The appeals court reasoned that under the constitutional guarantee of due process, an accused person is entitled to a meaningful opportunity to be heard and that "employees might be reluctant to deny charges for fear that their denials would be construed as denials of facts," subjecting them to additional charges.
But the high court said the opportunity to be heard does not include the opportunity to lie and noted that a criminal defendant's right to testify does not include the right to commit perjury. Lawyers who represent federal workers said yesterday the ruling in Lachance v. Erickson will put new pressure on public employees. They noted that unlike in criminal trials in which defendants need not testify, federal employees have an obligation to answer questions and agencies can draw negative inferences when people refuse to respond.
A related pending case tests whether a denial of wrongdoing during an agency investigation may subject the person to prosecution under a statute making it a felony to lie with respect to any matter within the jurisdiction of a federal agency. A ruling in Brogan v. United States is likely before the justices recess this summer.
In the Virginia case, Douglas M. Buchanan was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1987 murders of his father, stepmother and two young stepbrothers. During his sentencing hearing, testimony over two days detailed Buchanan's troubled family background and mental and emotional problems. Buchanan wanted the judge, who specifically instructed the jury on the aggravating circumstances of the crime, to specifically instruct the jury about mitigating circumstances, including his troubled background. The judge refused and an appeals court upheld the death sentence.
In affirming the sentence in Buchanan v. Angelone, Rehnquist wrote for the majority that although a defendant must be able to present relevant mitigating evidence, the court has never required states to structure in a particular way how juries consider the evidence.
He said it was enough for the judge to tell the jury to base its decision on "all the evidence." Justices Stephen G. Breyer, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. In a statement by Breyer, they said ambiguous instructions "risk that the death penalty will be imposed in spite of factors which may call for a less severe penalty."
In the New York case, the court said the state lacked sufficient justification for treating residents and nonresidents differently on the alimony tax deduction, violating the Constitution's mandate that states give nonresidents all the "privileges and immunities" given its own people.
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