Acquittals Are Final, Lawyer Argues To High Court


David Nathanson, a young Boston public defender, walked into a “legal buzzsaw” yesterday at the Supreme Court, the Boston Globe reports. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, described by the Globe as the court’s famous swing voter and reputedly the most powerful woman in America, pressed him to answer a complicated question. As Nathanson, 33, launched into a complicated answer, the 74-year-old O’Connor interrupted. “Just answer the question for once.”

Nathanson tried to persuade the court that once a judge acquits a defendant of a charge, even if it’s a mistake, that decision is irreversible. Reinstating the charge, he argued, violates a defendant’s constitutional protection against double jeopardy, being prosecuted twice for the same offense. Nathanson walked into the courtroom with one point to make: An acquittal is an acquittal. In a long exchange, Justice Stephen Breyer wanted Nathanson to articulate a simple rule for when an acquittal is final. Justice Antonin Scalia answered himself. “Once it’s final under state procedure — and there’s no clerical error, leaving that aside — it’s final,” Scalia said. “If there’s a mistake, too bad.” Breyer replied, to laughter: “Excellent. That was an excellent answer.”


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