Supreme Court declines to hear key cases as new term begins | Courthouse News Service
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Supreme Court declines to hear key cases as new term begins

The high court's rejection marked the end of the road for anti-abortion activists who claim to be undercover journalists.

(CN) — A North Carolina man trying to clear his name from a murder he says he didn’t commit. 

An involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital.

A high-profile legal battle between Planned Parenthood and anti-abortion advocates who conducted an undercover, hidden-camera investigation.

Those three notable cases among dozens of others were turned away by the Supreme Court as it started its new term on Monday.

The cases — McKoy v. Ishee, J.R. v. North Carolina and Merritt v. Planned Parenthood Federation of America — would have dealt with issues surrounding claims of wrongful conviction, due process and free speech. But the court denied all three petitions for certiorari with no explanation. 

McKoy dealt with Lamont McKoy’s conviction in the 1990 murder of Myron Hailey in Fayetteville, North Carolina. At issue is a question over whether new evidence that has emerged in subsequent years was enough to trigger a review.

McKoy was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1991 when he was 18 years old and is now out on parole. He’s been attempting to prove his innocence for more than three decades in a case that’s received both local and national media coverage.

In his petition, McKoy argued that state prosecutors at the time relied heavily on one witness, withheld exculpatory evidence and took McKoy’s words out of context in order to suggest McKoy implicated himself in the murder. McKoy claimed that a joint state and federal task force investigating the murder gathered witness testimony that implicated another man in the shooting.

The Fourth Circuit found that the evidence did not meet the threshold for the case to be reviewed. McKoy sought to overturn that decision.

“By concealing this exculpatory evidence for decades, the state has been able to oppose petitioner’s claims of innocence in the state proceedings unrestrained by truth,” attorney Jamie Lau of the Duke Law School Wrongful Convictions Clinic wrote in McKoy’s brief. “And now, given the errors committed by the Fourth Circuit, the state has been rewarded for its efforts.”

Lawyers arguing on behalf of the state, however, supported the Fourth Circuit’s decision, arguing among other things that a reasonable juror could have found McKoy’s statements to amount to a confession, regardless of the new evidence.

The case of J.R. v. North Carolina deals with the case of a plaintiff identified only as J.R., a Durham resident who was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility after he was found unconscious on a Durham street in 2019.

Lawyers representing J.R. argued that lawyers representing the state were not present at the hearing, and so the trial court judge conducted the cross-examination of the state’s lone witness. They called this a breach of due process, arguing that in practice, the court both presented a case and then ruled in favor of it.

“A judge can hardly be impartial when the judge is also an advocate for one side,” Glenn Gerding and Stuart Banner, J.R.’s attorneys, wrote in their brief.

They argue that the practice has become more common in North Carolina courts, with district attorneys taking advantage of state law that does not require state representatives to be present at commitment hearings involving private hospitals. But the Fourth Circuit disagreed.

On the other hand, the state maintains that the judge’s role was to ask neutral, open-ended questions of a Duke physician who had recommended the commitment. 

“It is not even possible that a court could have served as an advocate for the state,” the state said in its brief. “J.R.’s commitment was not initiated by the state, but rather by his doctors at Duke.”

In Merritt v. Planned Parenthood, the Supreme Court was asked to consider overturning the Ninth Circuit’s decision that found two anti-abortion activists liable for their hidden-camera investigation.

Sandra Susan Merritt was enlisted by the nonprofit Center for Medical Progress to conduct a hidden-camera, undercover investigation of Planned Parenthood clinics to document the what the group said was the sale of aborted fetal organs. The released videos prompted outcry from abortion opponents in 2015 and was criticized by others as edited and misleading.

Merritt and the Center for Medical Porgress’ founder David Daleiden have been at the center of Planned Parenthood lawsuits for years, with a trial in 2019 ruling in favor of Planned Parenthood that Merritt and Daleiden violated civil RICO and federal wiretapping laws.

In their petition to the Supreme Court, Merritt and Daleiden argued that the verdict, upheld by the Ninth Circuit, was effectively a workaround to the First Amendment, allowing the organization to use other types of laws to sue journalists other than the high-bar defamation or libel lawsuits.

Among other things, Planned Parenthood argued that it was a victim of a fraudulent scheme that caused economic damages that were unrelated to reputational damages and that went beyond the petitioners’ right to free speech.

Categories / Appeals, Courts, Government

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