Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

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In 1985, a manager was shot to death during a robbery of his restaurant. In the following months, a second manager was murdered and another survived similar robberies. In each restaurant, the robber fired two .38 caliber bullets; all six bullets were recovered. The survivor, Smotherman, described his assailant and picked Hinton’s picture out of a photographic array. The police arrested Hinton and recovered from his house a .38 caliber revolver belonging to his mother, who shared the house. The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences concluded that the six bullets had all been fired from the Hinton revolver. Hinton was charged with two counts of murder. He was not charged with the Smotherman robbery. The prosecution strategy was to link Hinton to the Smotherman robbery by eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence about the bullets and to persuade the jury that, given the similarity of the crimes, Hinton must have committed the murders. Hinton presented witnesses in support of his alibi that he was at work at the time of the Smotherman robbery. The six bullets and the revolver were the only physical evidence. Hinton’s attorney obtained a grant of $1,000 to hire an expert to challenge that evidence and did not request more funding, nor correct the judge’s mistaken belief that a $1,000 limit applied. Under that mistaken belief, Hinton’s attorney found only one person who was willing to testify: Payne. Hinton’s attorney believed that Payne did not have the necessary expertise. The prosecutor discredited Payne. The jury convicted Hinton; the court imposed a death sentence. In state post-conviction proceedings, Hinton alleged ineffective assistance and produced three highly credible experts, who testified that they could not conclude that any of the bullets had been fired from the Hinton revolver. The state did not submit rebuttal evidence. Following a remand by the state’s highest court, the trial court held that Payne was qualified to testify as a firearms and toolmark expert under the then-applicable standard. The Alabama Supreme Court denied review. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded, holding that Hinton’s attorney rendered ineffective assistance under its “Strickland” test. It was unreasonable to fail to seek additional funds to hire an expert where that failure was based not on any strategic choice but on a mistaken belief that available funding was limited. View "Hinton v. Alabama" on Justia Law

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In an infringement suit, the district court declared Minton’s patent invalid under the “on sale” bar since he had leased his interactive securities trading system to a brokerage more than one year before the patent application, 35 U. S. C. 102(b). Seeking reconsideration, Minton argued for the first time that the lease was part of testing and fell within the “experimental use” exception to the bar. The Federal Circuit affirmed denial of the motion, concluding that the argument was waived. Minton sued for legal malpractice in Texas state court. His former attorneys argued that Minton’s claims would have failed even if the experimental-use argument had been timely raised. The trial court agreed. Minton then claimed that the court lacked jurisdiction under 28 U. S. C. 1338(a), which provides for exclusive federal jurisdiction over any case “arising under any Act of Congress relating to patents.” The Texas Court of Appeals rejected Minton’s argument and determined that Minton failed to establish experimental use. The state’s highest court reversed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Section 338(a) does not deprive state courts of subject matter jurisdiction over Minton’s malpractice claim. Federal law does not create that claim, so it can arise under federal patent law only if it necessarily raises a stated federal issue, actually disputed and substantial, which may be entertained without disturbing an approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities. Resolution of a federal patent question is “necessary” to Minton’s case and the issue is “actually disputed,” but it does not carry the necessary significance. No matter the resolution of the hypothetical “case within a case,” the result of the prior patent litigation will not change. Nor will allowing state courts to resolve these cases undermine development of a uniform body of patent law. View "Gunn v. Minton" on Justia Law