First, this is a terrific decision. It is the right result, for the right reasons. It clears up a lot of issues that should have been clear. It should have been unanimous; the principal concern it raises is not anything it says, or doesn’t say, but that only five justices joined it, and one of those five is about to leave the Court.
An anonymous commenter to my earlier post said that the Court never made an affirmative argument as to why the lab reports were testimonial. I don’t think that is correct. Part II of the opinion makes the case. It does so briefly because Justice Scalia believes – accurately, I think – that this is an easy case, a “rather straightforward application of Crawford.” First, the Court says that affidavits are in the core class of testimonial statements identified by Crawford, and these certificates are clearly affidavits. Correct. Sufficient for the result. But then the Court gives an underlying basis. Although it had just quoted the three definitions of “testimonial” recited by Crawford, now it just applied one, the right one (or at least the one closest to right) – the statements were made “under circumstances which would lead an objective witness reasonably to believe that the statement would be available for use at a later trial.” And under that standard, the case is an easy one; indeed, the sole purpose of the certificates was evidentiary. Easy case.
But the Court goes on to respond to a “potpourri” of counter-arguments. As an introduction, it notes that its result does not upset a long-standing, well-established body of law; most of the decisions allowing lab reports in without a live witness are from the Roberts era.
The first counter-argument it knocks down is that the certificates are not testimonial because they are not accusatory. Lots of witnesses give testimony that is not accusatory. It would wipe out a good deal of the confrontation right if it were limited to statements that are accusatory. Descriptions of a crime scene, narrations of the victim’s whereabouts or of the defendant’s – none of these are accusatory.
Next, the Court knocks down the idea that somehow the Confrontation Clause doesn’t apply because lab technicians are not “conventional” witnesses. It breaks this down into three parts. One is that the witness’s observations were “near-contemporaneous” – to which the Court’s response is essentially, “Not really true, and irrelevant in any event.” Second, the lab analyst doesn’t observe the crime or any human action related to it. That’s pretty similar to the “accusatory” argument – lots of testimony falls outside that narrow category. Third, the statement wasn’t made in response to interrogation. Once again, so what? The Court emphasizes a point it made in Davis – a volunteered statement can be testimonial. (And anyway, it says, this was in response to a police request.) All plainly right.
Third is the argument that somehow the certificates are different because they report on a scientific test. That, says the Court, is just an invitation to return to the pre-Crawford regime of Roberts. Right. And anyway, these statements aren’t always so reliable. But lest anyone believe that the Court’s discussion of reliability signaled that it was hedging on its rejection of reliability as the governing criterion for the Confrontation Clause:
The analysts who swore the affidavits provided testimony against Melendez-Diaz, and they are therefore subject to confrontation; we would reach the same conclusion if all analysts always possessed the scientific acumen of Mme. Curie and the veracity of Mother Theresa.I didn’t know that Mother Theresa’s reputation for veracity was so strong – but otherwise, clearly correct.
Fourth, the Court blasts the idea that the certificates should be exempt as business or official records. Once again, the Court's basic take is "Not true, and so what anyway?" The certificates don't qualify under the traditional exception because they were produced for use at trial. And if the exception did extend so far, it wouldn't do the prosecution any good. The Court gives a clarification, which was necessary but should not have been, of the relationship between the Confrontation Clause and hearsay exceptions:
Business and public records are generally admissible absent confrontation not because they qualify under an exception to the hearsay rules, but because – having been created for the administration of an entity's affairs and not for the purpose of establishing or proving some fact at trial – they are not testimonial. Whether or not they qualify as business or official records, the analysts' statements here – prepared specifically for use at petitioner's trial – were testimony against petitioner, and the analysts were subject to confrontation under the Sixth Amendment.Fifth is the argument that the power to subpoena the analyst, either under the Compulsory Process Clause or a state statute, adequately fulfills the confrontation right. Justice Scalia gives this argument the back of the hand that it deserves, dismissing it in a single paragraph – though several states had adopted it. And it was dangerous, too, because the principle was limitless and would have posed a significant threat to the continuing vitality of the Confrontation Clause. I confess I was a little sorry to see this part of the opinion; my petition in Briscoe v. Virginia, which has been held pending this decision, had raised this issue, and I would have loved to argue it. Instead, we get handed a victory without argument. Darn.
Finally, and perhaps what most motivated the dissenters, is concern about the burden to the judicial system. Once again, the response is basically two-fronted. Sure the Confrontation Clause, like other constitutional guarantees, makes prosecution more burdensome, but that does not give us leeway to ignore it. At greater length, the Court expresses doubt about "dire predictions": "Perhaps the best indication that the sky will not fall after today's decision is that it has not done so already." Plenty of states do not rely on certificates (or on surrogate witnesses), and they have managed. I will write more about this issue later, but for now just a couple of quick points: First, most defendants, as the Court says, have no desire for the lab technician to appear. Second, the Court properly notes that a simple notice-and-demand statute is valid. Under such a statute, if the prosecution gives timely notice of of intent to use a certificate, the defendant must make a timely demand for the witness to appear or give up the right. Correct.
Finally, one brief point about Justice Thomas's concurrence. He has, incorrectly in my view, placed emphasis on formality. But these certificates were as formal as could be. I don't think this was a particularly difficult case for him.
More at a later time. Now, I'm going to celebrate my 20th anniversary with my wife. A better gift from the Court than Giles, which was decided a year ago today.