Third Party & Independents Archives

The Impact of Buttons

In a somewhat surprising 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals erred when it ordered a new trial for a murder defendant whose victim’s relatives wore buttons with the victim’s picture on them at his trial.

The Ninth Circuit believed Mathew Musladin was denied his right to a fair trial because the buttons were prejudicial, and because they were in plain view of the jury, the said buttons may have influenced the jury's verdict.

Without deciding if the buttons could have indeed had that effect, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision because the Ninth Circuit didn't apply a legal principle the Supreme Court had adopted.

In a way the High Court dodged the issue because it didn't set a clear principle or standard for wearing buttons at a defendant's trial. The likely reason is because the opinion's author - polarizing Justice Clarence Thomas - might not have had enough votes on his side had he tried to convince them that it's reasonable in most or all circumstances to wear buttons at a defendant's trial.

Instead, Justice Thomas utilized the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which states that a writ of habeas corpus "shall not be granted" by a federal court unless a state court issued a decision "that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States."

Taking that avenue the justices determined that the Ninth Circuit was wrong in granting habeas corpus because the state court that tried and convicted Musladin didn't run contrary to federal law.

Musladin was convicted in 1994 of killing his estranged wife's boyfriend, Tom Studer. At his trial, Musladin's lawyer objected to the buttons that were worn by the victim's family. The judge however, said the buttons presented "no possible prejudice to the defendant."

A California appeals court agreed and upheld the conviction because they saw the buttons as nothing more than a sign of "normal grief" by the family. The first federal court to look at the case also upheld the conviction, until it finally got thrown out when it got to the predictably liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals based in San Francisco.

I am positive Justice Thomas would have written a broader decision if he could have that would have permitted buttons at trials because victims' relatives have a right to grieve in public. The decision to wear those buttons should be allowed if they aren't prejudicing the jury or influencing the outcome of the trial.

But waiting in the wings were Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy and David H. Souter who wrote separately and did not sign Justice Thomas's opinion because they wanted to explore the possibility that such buttons could be a problem in the courtroom.

With Justice Kennedy being viewed as the critical swing vote on a lot of cases that stand 4-4 before his vote, the more conservative justices such as Thomas have to be careful in their writings if they don't want to lose him. And in the attempt to appease Justice Kennedy the justices sometimes have to write narrowly enough to also satisfy the remaining members of the court.

Should the Supreme Court eventually get to decide if wearing buttons in court is permissible? I see no problem with them. A jury is going to see the grieving family anyway, and if that doesn't influence their verdict I don't see how the addition of an attached button is going to either.

You can read the decision here.

Posted by Scottie at December 16, 2006 3:56 PM
Comment #199537

Presumption of innocence. If a bunch of people show up at a trial with visible memorabilia of the victim, the message is that they sit in expecation of justice.

Justice from whom? The purpose of the trial is to establish beyond a reasonable doubt whether the defendant is guilty of the crime.

The need to have a fair trial is important, as the victims family, motivated to confront the defendant may yet be wrong. It’s happened before. What people need to be considering is not whether or not they should avenge the victim, but instead whether or not the evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that this person committed the crime they are charged with. If you can do that in a fair trial, then you’ve vastly increased the likelihood that you’re finding the right people to punish.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at December 16, 2006 5:44 PM
Comment #199539

Having served on a jury for a murder trial I can say I would not have been influenced by buttons. Whethere anybody else would have been I don’t know, but I doubt it.

Posted by: womanmarine at December 16, 2006 6:00 PM
Comment #199550

Scottie, one cannot rule that grieving families have more freedom of speech than non family members. So, would you permit all others in the court room to wear buttons of their choice as well? And if buttons, how about signs, signs on purses, signs on clothing, signs held overhead.

The Ninth Circuit was right to take the broader slippery slope view, that if the victim’s families are permitted signage in courtroom, under our fair and equal applicability of law, the defendant’s families should also have the right to wear signage in the courtroom. And if they, then also their supporters, attorneys, and paid court room packers of signage.

Courts must look to the fair and equal application of law to all in cases like this. One cannot subjectively decide the law will apply to some, and not others, based on emotional state. Not under our Constitution.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 16, 2006 7:31 PM
Comment #199554

Courtrooms are not circuses, much less fora for political or emotionial displays. The only thing that should and must matter, is the evidence against the accused person. Anything which may distract from that should be disallowed as contempt of court.

Posted by: Paul in Euroland at December 16, 2006 8:58 PM
Comment #199557

This is a tough call. If you’re going to ban buttons, would you also ban shirts with messages on them? What about if they were messages unrelated to the case, such as corporate logos on uniforms? For that matter, would a police badge be considered a “button” that had to be removed? Where is the line drawn?

I agree with David that the rules have to be applied equally to all involved. But I’m not sure that any rule should be applied here. Unless the behavior is disruptive to the proceedings, is it really worth bothering with?

Posted by: Rob Cottrell at December 16, 2006 10:15 PM
Comment #199565

How are buttons any more prejudicing against the defendant than the victims mother breaking out in sobs every time the victims name is mentioned? Would y’all be willing to say that’s prejudicing too?
My wife sat in a capital murder case where that happened. While the prosecution didn’t prove it’s case. In fact the evidence didn’t even come close to proving the defendants guilt. But two jurors still thought they should convict the defendant because the victim’s mother needed justice to get over her grieving. What about justice for an obviously innocent man?
If the court is going to ban buttons in the court room, maybe it should ban emotions ther too.

Posted by: Ron Brown at December 17, 2006 12:19 AM
Comment #199566

I can’t say for other parts of the country, but in my neck of the woods the police aren’t allowed to wear their uniforms in the court room during a felony trail. The reasoning is that some jurors might be intimidated by them and might vote to convict the defendant because of it.

Posted by: Ron Brown at December 17, 2006 12:24 AM
Comment #199577

What’s to stop people from wearing signs on T-shirt or holding a sign above their head?

Let’s go in the opposite direction.

What’s to stop a defense lawyer demanding that black armbands be banned?

What’s to stop a defense lawyer demanding that somber colored clothing be banned as prejudicial?

What’s to stop a defense lawyer demanding that all persons who are family of the victim, friends of the victim…or anyone who even met the victim in passing on the street be banned from the courtroom as prejudicial against him client?

This is where good common sense (something the 9th rarely displays) would be helpful.

Posted by: Jim T at December 17, 2006 8:40 AM
Comment #199587

The idea that 2 people sitting on the same jury would think that the defendant should be found guilty to help the victims mother get closure despite a lack of evidence supporting the guilty verdict is certainly a reason to consider what is prejudicial in a courtroom IMHO. Obviously the mothers tears were prejudicial to that particular jury. While we can understand the mothers tears, it is incumbant upon the courts to allow a fair trial, where facts and evidence decide the guilt or innocence of the defendant.
It would be interesting to hear from the jury in the Musladin case on whether the buttons were a factor in the outcome of the trial. Just because the 9th is a liberal court is no reason to not consider the issue straight up instead of side stepping it.

Posted by: j2t2 at December 17, 2006 11:46 AM
Comment #199606

Even the most liberal courts can come up with good decisions at times. While I don’t think that buttons would have any effect on me, there are those that they would. If the jurors in the Musladin case were swayed by them then I can see the verdict being over turned. Particularly if there was a lack of evidence against the defendant. It would be nice to be able to get into the heads of the jury in this case.
One of my wife’s brothers is a trial lawyer. He says that he sure would like to get into the heads of the jury in a lot of the cases he’s tried. He’s won cases he should have lost, and lost cases he should have won.

Posted by: Ron Brown at December 17, 2006 5:53 PM
Comment #199607

BTW, the case my wife sat on was a 9 year old murder case. While I realize that some emotions can be trigered during a trial, I personally believe that the mother was over playing it a bit.

Posted by: Ron Brown at December 17, 2006 5:57 PM
Comment #199693

David R. Remer wrote:

“The Ninth Circuit was right to take the broader slippery slope view, that if the victim’s families are permitted signage in courtroom, under our fair and equal applicability of law, the defendant’s families should also have the right to wear signage in the courtroom. And if they, then also their supporters, attorneys, and paid court room packers of signage.”

Sorry, David. I just don’t think this decision rests on the proverbial slippery slope. I think there is a reasonableness test here. A grieving family member wearing a button could be construed as reasonable. A 4 by 4 sign on a stick would not. Justice Thomas’ opinion attempts, clumbsily, to establish this.

Stephen Daugherty wrote:

“If a bunch of people show up at a trial with visible memorabilia of the victim, the message is that they sit in expecation of justice.”

Again, reasonableness. We are not talking here about a bunch of people crashing the courthouse with huge signs. We are talking about the family of the victim with small buttons. Taking a situation to it’s illogical extreme is not always an effective argument.

Posted by: Chi Chi at December 18, 2006 5:01 PM
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