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(AP file photo)
(AP file photo)

Supreme Court upholds separate-sovereigns doctrine

The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that a state and the federal government can press separate prosecutions over the same conduct, ruling in a case that might have extended the impact of President Donald Trump’s pardon power.

The justices, voting 7-2, left intact the “separate sovereigns” doctrine, a decades-old rule that limits the scope of the constitutional ban on double jeopardy. Elimination of the separate-sovereigns rule would have meant that a presidential pardon might block some state charges as well.

The case was being watched for any possible impact on Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. Manafort has been sentenced to a total of 7 1/2 years in prison in two federal cases, and he is now facing New York state charges for residential mortgage fraud, conspiracy and falsifying business records.

Trump hasn’t ruled out a pardon of Manafort, though he said March 13 it’s “not something on my mind.”

The case before the court involved Terance Gamble, who said his constitutional rights were violated when he was charged under both Alabama and federal law for possessing a gun as a convicted felon. He pleaded guilty to the state charges, then sought to have his federal indictment dismissed.

The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment says that no one shall “be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” The separate-sovereigns doctrine is often considered an exception to the double-jeopardy clause.

Writing for the court Monday, Justice Samuel Alito said the separate-sovereigns rule “is not an exception at all” but instead “follows from the text that defines that right in the first place.”

“An ‘offence’ is defined by a law, and each law is defined by a sovereign,” Alito wrote. “So where there are two sovereigns, there are two laws, and two ‘offences.’”

An unusual pairing of justices, liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg and conservative Neil Gorsuch, dissented. Justice Clarence Thomas, who in 2016 called for reexamination of the doctrine, said in a concurring opinion that his views had shifted.

“I agree that the historical record does not bear out my initial skepticism of the dual-sovereignty doctrine,” Thomas wrote.

In recent decades, federal prosecutors have invoked the separate-sovereigns doctrine to press civil rights charges against people who have already faced state criminal charges. In 1993, a federal jury found two Los Angeles police officers guilty in the beating of Rodney King even though they had already been acquitted of state charges.

The case is Gamble v. United States, 17-646.

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