Tuesday, December 6, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

High Court Lets Private Abuse Prosecution Stand

(CN) - After hearing arguments in April, the Supreme Court on Monday left intact a lower court's ruling that abuse victims can enforce protection orders, drawing a sharp dissent from Chief Justice John Roberts. "The terrifying force of the criminal justice system may only be brought to bear against an individual ... through a prosecution brought on behalf of the government," he wrote.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Sonia Sotomayor joined Roberts in dissenting from the court's decision to dismiss the case as "improvidently granted."

Roberts said the justices should at least "do what we decided to do when we granted certiorari, and took the unusual step of rephrasing the question: answer it."

The case stemmed from a civil protection order against John Robertson, who attacked and threatened to kill Wykenna Watson in March 1999. Three months later, he attacked her again, putting her in intensive care with severe lye burns.

A federal grand jury indicted Robertson on assault charges, and he agreed to plead guilty to attempted aggravated assault in exchange for a dismissal of the remaining charges and a promise by the U.S. Attorney's Office not to prosecute over the second incident.

Watson, with the help of the D.C. Attorney General's Office, filed a motion to hold Robertson in criminal contempt for having violated the protective order with the second attack. She won in federal court, and Robertson appealed his conviction and sentencing.

Robertson's attorney argued that the Constitution doesn't allow Watson to prosecute Robertson for criminal contempt, because that's something only the government can do.

The dissenting justices shared this view.

"The court below held otherwise, relying on a dissenting opinion in one of our cases, and on the litigating position of the United States, which the solicitor general has properly abandoned in this court," Roberts wrote (original emphasis).

He said the high court should have corrected the lower court's error and remanded, instead of leaving the D.C. Circuit's ruling intact.

Recent Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan argued the government's position as solicitor general. She said Robertson's plea agreement bound only the U.S. attorney's office, not Watson, though Watson had acted as an agent of the state when she sought to enforce the protection order.

Advocates of abuse victims had been worried that a ruling for Robertson would impede private prosecutions and would strip victims of an important weapon in enforcing protection orders.

Had the justices required individuals to bring such cases in the government's name, advocates argued, victims would have been forced to meet state prosecutors' heightened standards.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.