The Supreme Court ruled Monday the states and the federal government can separately charge someone with the same crime, declining to overturn 170 years of precedent and calming fears from Trump critics who worried the justices would create a window for the president to abuse his pardon powers.
The court ruled that the “separate sovereigns” doctrine, which holds that the states and the federal government are independent powers, is still valid.
That means that even if the federal government has already pursued a case against someone for a crime, the states can also pursue their own charges.
In a 7-2 ruling, the justices rejected a challenge by a two-time felon who argued that having both a state and the feds go after him violated the prohibition on double jeopardy, or two bites at the apple, for the same crime.
“While our system of federalism is fundamental to the protection of liberty, it does not always maximize individual liberty at the expense of other interests,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority.
Critics of President Trump had feared that if the court had ruled the other way, it would give the president a chance to shield his allies.
In that scenario, they speculated, if Mr. Trump had issued a pardon for a federal offense, a zealous Democrat-led state such as New York could not pursue its own charges under double jeopardy.
Other legal analysts dismissed those fears, saying enterprising state prosecutors would have always been able to figure out ways to bring charges.
Monday’s case involved Terance Gamble, who was pulled over in Alabama in 2015 for a broken taillight. He was found to have marijuana and a firearm — a crime in itself, given his previous felony conviction for second-degree robbery.
The state prosecuted him for the gun violation, and he served a year’s prison time. The federal government also prosecuted for the gun violation and won a second sentence, which Gamble is serving at a high-security federal prison in Texas. He’s scheduled for release in February 2020.
Gamble’s legal team argued the two prosecutions constitute double jeopardy.
Justice Alito, though, pointed to 170 years of precedent for the separate sovereigns doctrine.
And he said even the application of the Bill of Rights to the states, a process that’s happened over the course of decades, doesn’t erase the dual prosecution powers.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying the majority’s ruling took a construct that’s supposed to maximize freedom, turned it into something that “scarcely shores up people’s rights.”
“Instead, it invokes federalism to withhold liberty,” she wrote.
Justice Neil M. Gorsuch also dissented, taking issue with the court’s view of the state and federal government as separate sovereigns, arguing the prosecutorial power springs from the same fount of power.
“Under our Constitution, the federal and state governments are but two expressions of a single and sovereign people,” he wrote.
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Author: Alex Swoyer