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Supreme Court rules against shackled prisoner seeking new trial

The justices decide other low-profile cases as well, including the proper venue for a legal fight over art turned over to the Nazis

The Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against a convicted felon who wanted a new trial because jurors had seen him shackled before finding him guilty of a 2007 murder.

The 6-to-3 ruling divided the court’s conservatives and liberals and led to testy competing opinions about respecting the court’s precedents.

It was among a handful of cases the court decided Thursday, all of them of a lower profile than coming rulings on abortion rights and gun control. In other decisions, the court ruled for a California family trying to recover a painting given up to the Nazis and sided with the city of Austin in a legal battle over its sign ordinance.

In the murder case, the court overturned a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit that Ervine Davenport deserved another chance to try to prove his murder conviction was tainted by some jurors seeing him shackled during trial.

There was no question that Davenport killed Annette White. But a jury rejected his theory of self-defense and credited evidence that instead he had strangled her and left her body in a field.

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Davenport was behind a privacy screen during much of the trial. Michigan courts reviewing his conviction agreed that it was a mistake that he was shackled during the trial, but held it was an error that didn’t affect the outcome. Five of the 12 jurors later testified they had glimpsed Davenport in shackles, but all said that had no bearing on their verdict.

Davenport then took his appeal to federal courts, where Supreme Court precedent and federal law make it difficult to second-guess the decisions of state courts. The case at the Supreme Court was about the test federal courts should apply in such cases.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said there were two. One is Supreme Court precedent that a state prisoner show that an error had a “‘substantial and injurious effect or influence’” on the trial’s outcome. The other is federal law that requires finding the state court ruling was “contrary to” or an “unreasonable application of” clearly established federal law or based on an “unreasonable determination of the facts.”

Gorsuch said the 6th Circuit was wrong to look only at the first test. He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Justice Elena Kagan objected that the Supreme Court in two previous rulings has said there was no reason for federal courts to conduct both of the tests Gorsuch identified. “I respectfully dissent from that pointless demand,” she wrote, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Kagan suggested the “make-work” requirement was simply an attempt to try to make it harder for the convicted to get relief from federal courts. She said the majority was using “this small and legally mundane case” to try to make a larger point, “perhaps hoping that the seeds it sows now will yield more succulent fruit in cases to come.”

The case is Davenport v. Brown.

Kagan wrote the court’s unanimous opinion in the Nazi art case — but that, too, was limited.

It involves a legal battle over Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro’s painting of a Paris street scene, “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain.” Lilly Cassirer, a member of a prominent German Jewish family, gave the painting up to the Nazis in 1939 to obtain an exit visa to England. (Kagan noted that Cassirer agreed in 1958 to accept compensation from the German Federal Republic — about $250,000 in today’s dollars. The painting is thought to be worth tens of millions.)

“The underlying question in this case — which this opinion will not resolve — is whether the Cassirer family can get the painting back,” Kagan wrote. But the “prosaic” question for the Supreme Court was to decide the venue in which the legal battle between the Cassirer family and a Spanish entity called the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, which now owns the painting, should take place.

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The court decided it should be in the courts of California, where Lilly Cassirer’s sole heir lives. The family believes California law is more beneficial. The Supreme Court’s decision reverses one from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

The case is Cassirer v. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation.

The court was more divided in deciding to send back to lower courts a sign ordinance from the city of Austin.

The law treats differently signs that are on a company’s property from those that are off-site. Outdoor advertising companies challenged the law, saying the city was violating free-speech guarantees when it imposed different restrictions on the off-premises signs. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit agreed.

But Sotomayor, writing for the majority, said that ruling was too strict. “The City’s provisions at issue here do not single out any topic or subject matter for differential treatment,” she wrote, thus should not be subjected to the court’s most demanding constitutional tests. She was joined by Roberts, Breyer, Kagan and Kavanaugh. Alito agreed with the outcome but not the reasoning.

Thomas dissented, along with Gorsuch and Barrett.

The case is City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin.

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