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The Sixth and Seventh Amendments Essay Sample

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The Sixth and Seventh Amendments Essay Sample

            The purpose of this paper is to discuss the two amendments to the U.S. Constitution which deal with the rights of the accused to a trial by jury in both criminal and civil cases. These are the sixth and the seventh amendments, respectively. To facilitate understanding of the subjects, the body of the paper will have five sections which will first present the actual texts of the amendments and discuss the manner and the dates of their incorporation to the constitution. Then the second section of the body will deal with the reasons behind these amendments and how they finally came about. The third section will then discuss the relevant social, political, and economic changes which have altered the meaning and application of these amendments for the modern Americans. This will be followed by the fourth section which will be dedicated to the various court rulings and other judicial developments which have affected the interpretation and the application of the sixth and the seventh amendments. The last, and a very crucial section of the body of this paper, will cite actual cases which influenced policy making and administrative practices in the affected government agencies.

            The right to a speedy trial and the right to trial by jury had their roots in the English legal tradition. They were incorporated in the English law on June 15, 1215, when King John signed the Magna Carta. The right to a speedy trial (now part of the Sixth Amendment) was covered by section 40 which declared, in so many words, the following: “To none will we sell, to none deny, or delay, right or justice.” Section 20 of the Magna Carta, on the other hand, granted to English citizens the right for a trial by jury when it specifically stated that “None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of responsible men of the neighborhood” (Britannia.com, 2007). The Magna Carta was later brought and observed by the colonizers during the early days of the colonies and before the Revolutionary War even started, the citizens of the early colonies were already enjoying these rights. As a matter of fact, one of the grievances cited by the colonists in the Declaration of Independence was that King George III “deprive[ed] us, in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury” (Shepard, 2008). These two rights later became integral parts of the U.S. Constitution under the Sixth and Seventh Amendments which were ratified on December 15, 1791 as part of the “Bill of Rights” meant to safeguard the civil liberties of Americans (The Charter of Freedoms, n.d.).

 Generally, the Sixth Amendment guaranteed the right of the accused in all criminal cases to be properly informed of the charges brought against him or her, assistance of counsel during a speedy trial, to confront the witnesses brought against him or her, and present his or her own witnesses. Specifically, the Sixth Amendment was written as follows:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense (The Charters of Freedom, n.d.).

            The Seventh Amendment, on the other hand, covered the right for a jury trial in all civil cases. Its specific provisions are as follows:

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law (The Charters of Freedom, n.d.).

            When the Revolutionary War ended, the 12 states independently incorporated these rights in their respective constitutions. By the time the United States Constitution of 1787 was completed, these rights were contained in Section 2 of its third article (Shepard, 2008). However, before it could be presented to the states for ratification, its opponents continued attacking its finished form. Citing the British example, they claimed that the obscurity of the meaning of the provisions of the constitution could serve as a vehicle of tyranny for the central government and result to a wholesale violation of civil rights (The Charter of Freedoms, n.d.).

As a result of their objections, when the conventions were held in the 12 states for the purpose of ratifying the constitution, some of the states demanded that a “bill of rights” should first be constituted in order to explicitly state the rights of the individual citizens of the country. The other states, on the other hand, went on to ratify the document on the condition that the “bill of rights” amending the constitution would later follow. So it was that during the session of the U.S. Congress which started in New York on March 4, 1789, the “bill of rights” was immediately discussed. Ten amendments constituting the bill of rights were proposed for adoption of the states on September 25, 1789. While the first two amendments did not meet the approval of the states, the eight other amendments were subsequently ratified on December 15, 1791 (The Charter of Freedoms, n.d.). Thenceforth, the Sixth and Seventh Amendments in their present form officially became part of the constitution of the land. Both of these amendments will be discussed in length later in this paper.

            During the later part of the twentieth century, several developments worked together to weaken the jury trial. One of the reasons was the increasing tendency of the parties, especially in civil cases, to resort to mediation and arbitration in resolving their conflicts. Many of the civil cases, therefore, no longer reached the juries. In criminal cases, the most significant development was the introduction of plea bargaining where defendants were provided with the opportunity to plead guilty before their cases reached the courts in exchange for a lesser sentence. The practice became a very significant part of the justice system. It was integrated into the criminal justice system supposedly to reduce the volume of criminal cases reaching the courts, in the process, unclogging their case loads and saving the government precious dollars. The practice, therefore, necessarily reflected a significant decrease in criminal cases being heard by juries. Instead, criminal cases were being resolved by agreements (Shepard, 2008).

Later, however, plea bargaining became not just a tool for reducing the case loads of the courts. It has become so widespread that according to Robert Scott and Bill Stuntz, it ceased to be an “adjunct to the criminal justice system” but rather became “the criminal justice system” in the country (as cited in Mnookin, 2005). Statistics support this view. In 2002, for instance, out of a total of 75,573 criminal cases which were resolved, only 3,463 –or less than five percent — actually reached the courts or, for that matter, the juries. More than 72,110 cases (representing around 95 percent) were resolved with the defendants pleading guilty to the charges brought against them. It is widely believed that majority of the guilty pleas were products of plea bargaining agreements. This discovery forced observers to pronounce that “Plea bargains have become the norm and the trial an anomaly” (Mnookin, 2005).

The jury system also started losing its attraction to the public who were expected to serve as members of the jury. For many of them, being a juror is not only a difficult task. It requires them to sacrifice quality time which could otherwise be spent with their children. Then more and more complaints involving poor treatment from court officials surfaced. Others feared reprisals from convicted felons and their families. Americans also started viewing the jury as archaic and unintelligent, later becoming an object of scorn. For his part, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, opined that the task of assembling an effective, impartial jury involves “the difficulty of finding twelve men everyday who don’t know anything and can’t read” (Shepard, 2008). Of course, Langhorne could be referring to the requirement of the court that the jury should be composed of individuals who are not familiar with the facts of the case in order to be able to render an objective decision.

Many Americans have also started questioning the “nullification” power inherent in the jury. This refers to the power of the jury to ignore the law if they feel that they have a moral obligation to do so. In the past, juries have been found to nullify the law when they thought that the particular law which the defendant allegedly violated was unjust or immoral in the first place. Thee were also times when observers believed that the decisions of the juries were influenced by their belief that the defendant should be acquitted because law enforcers committed grave indiscretions in the performance of their duties, and defendant was denied due process, as a result. Other times, juries were suspected of basing their decisions on the defendant’s race (Criminal Law: An Overview, 2006).

Incidents of “jury nullification” proliferated during the nineteenth century in the northern and southern sates. It was observed in the decisions of juries in the northern states to hand down a “not guilty” verdict in cases which involved persons who were charged with violating the slave law after helping negro slaves escape from their masters. In similar fashion, “jury nullification” existed in the southern states during the 1950s. A jury would usually return a “not guilty” verdict in a case of a white man who was charged with killing a civil rights worker even if evidence against him was very strong (Criminal Law: An Overview, 2006).

One may ask how “jury nullification” takes place. There are actually two factors which allow this to happen. One of these is the fact that the jury is only required to come up with either a “guilty” or a “not guilty” verdict. The law does not require a jury to explain or justify its decision. In fact, deliberation of the jury is so confidential that nobody outside the jury room knows how the discussion progresses or how the jurors go about examining the body of evidence. As a matter fact, people outside the jury room could never be certain if the members of the jury are actually discussing the case exhaustively before reaching a decision. This led to the observation that the jury system is so structured that juries sympathetic to a defendant are liable to return a not guilty verdict even if the prosecution could establish that the defendant actually committed the crime charged against him or her (Criminal Law: An Overview, 2006).

The second factor which allows the possibility of “jury nullification” is the fact that the decision of a jury is final. In other words, after the jury hands down a “not guilty” decision, the government has no more power to “reprosecute” the defendant. This is provided under the Fifth Amendment which states that “[n]o person shall…be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy.” In other words, as soon as the jury has spoken, the defendant walks whether or not he or she actually committed the crime. “Jury nullification” is then completed (Criminal Law: An Overview, 2006).

This issue has polarized Americans. There are those who are trying to defend “jury nullification” and there are those who are questioning its wisdom. Those who are in favor contend that the very essence of the Sixth Amendment is to prevent government from subjecting criminal defendants to harsh treatment for the purpose of dominating or railroading criminal cases. This is why defendants are given the choice: whether they want to entrust their fate to the “common-sense judgment” of their peers who are likely to be more sympathetic, or submit before the judgment of a sitting judge who, while definitely more competent in the letter of the law, could be less than compassionate. According to proponents of “jury nullification,” the system is the “community’s safeguard [not only] against morally unjust or socially undesirable (albeit legally proper) criminal convictions” but also against established statutes which the jurors deem immoral or unjust (Criminal Law: An Overview, 2006).

            On the other hand, the opposing camp argues that allowing juries to determine whether a law is morally just or unjust and then come out with a verdict based on such a determination destroys the very foundation of American democracy. According to them, under the letters of the law, only the duly elected representatives of the people are granted the authority to make laws or amend existing laws found to be morally unjust. Moreover, they contend that when juries ignore the law for whatever reasons – sympathy for the accused and their belief that the law is unjust included – they are violating the oath which they take before being impaneled (Criminal Law: An Overview, 2006).

            Professor Paul Butler introduced the racial flavor to the debate when he urged all African American jurors to resort to “jury nullification” when hearing cases involving Blacks charged with nonviolent and victimless crimes. He told his fellow blacks that “[F]or pragmatic and policy reasons, the black community is better off when some nonviolent lawbreakers remain in the community rather than go to prison.” Butler added that black jurors should make use of “jury nullification” to condemn the discrimination against African-Americans which resulted to a situation where more blacks are being charged, convicted, and put behind bars compared to white offenders. He was, however, contradicted by Professor Andrew Leipold who explained that his call would result to anarchy because other minority groups (like the Latinos and the Asians) could be expected to follow in their wake. Instead, Leipold urged all Americans to adhere to the principle that skin color should not be the reason for sending people to jail (Criminal Law: An Overview, 2006).

             Incidentally, there were already many instances of “jury nullification” involving black jurors. A classic example was the case which involved Lemrick Nelson Jr. He was an African-American who was accused of killing a Jewish scholar in Brooklyn in 1991. In spite of the fact that the victim was able to positively identify him before dying of stab wounds, a black-dominated jury acquitted Nelson. Although the issue of “jury nullification: did not surface at the time, the decision was enough for Jews to express their loss of faith in the criminal justice system of the country. What made matters worse was the report which later circulated that Nelson celebrated his acquittal in the company of some of the black jurors after the trial (Leo, 1995).

            One of the early judicial rulings which changed the interpretation of the Sixth Amendment was made in connection with Bloom v. Illinois in 1968. This case changed the attitude of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding criminal contempt. Before this case, the opinion of the Court was that defendants charged with criminal contempt do not have constitutional right to a jury trial. In deciding for this case, however, the Court declared that “serious contempt’s are so nearly like other serious crimes that they are subject to the jury trial provisions of the Constitution….and that the traditional rule is constitutionally infirm insofar as it permits other than petty contempt’s to be tried without honoring a demand for a jury trial” (FindLaw, n.d.).

            The concept of an impartial jury, on the other hand, was the subject of the Court ruling in Witherspoon v. Illinois in 1968. In that case, the Court made a ruling that a defendant in a capital case would be denied his or her right to be heard by an impartial jury if the jury selection would disqualify those individuals who consider the death penalty to be unethical and immoral. In the opinion of the court, if “scrupled” individuals are excluded from death penalty juries, the action would “stack the deck” against the defendant, thereby ensuring that the verdict would undoubtedly be death (FindLaw, n.d.).

            The Sixth Amendment right of a defendant “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” also saw several changes of interpretation. Before 1965, the Court held that any evidence or statement given by a witness during a preliminary hearing could no longer be admissible at trial if the witness failed to appear for cross-examination due to the fault of the prosecutor. However, if it was the defendant who prevented the witness from appearing, the testimony made by the same witness at a prior hearing could be used at a later trial. After 1965, however, the Court adopted a different stand, explaining that the purpose of the Confrontation Clause was “to give the defendant charged with crime an opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses against him.”

So it was that in Douglas v. Alabama in 1965, the court ruled that the prior confession which was made by the defendant’s accomplice could not be admissible when the accomplice refused to testify during the actual hearing because the defendant could not cross-examine him. However, in Dutton v. Evans in 1970, the Court admitted as evidence at trial the statement which was executed by a witness in spite of the fact that the prosecution did not produce said witness. According to the ruling of the Court, producing the witness during trial so that he or she could make the statement under oath, in the presence of the jury, and so that he or she could be cross-examined by the defendant “is only one way of complying with the Confrontation Clause.” The Court said that as long as it could be ascertained that cross-examining the witness could not “call into question the declaration’s apparent meaning or the declarant’s sincerity, perception, or memory,” then the testimony should be admitted (FindLaw, n.d.).

            The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right of the accused to be assisted by counsel so that he or she could adequately defend him or herself. When the Amendment took into effect, the guarantee was interpreted to be limited to a defendant who wanted to be represented by counsel and who could afford to pay for the services of one. After the 1930s, however, the right to counsel” clause was expanded by the Supreme Court. In the case Powell v. Alabama in 1932, the Court overturned the lower court when it convicted and sentenced to death eight black youths who were not represented by counsel in a trial which was carried-out rather hastily. According to Justice Sutherland who penned the decision, the assistance of counsel is an important part of the due process because without it, a defendant, “though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.” Further, the Court said that even if the defendants were not in a position to retain their own counsel, the court should have appointed one for them, whether or not they requested one, in order to meet the requirements of due process (FindLaw, n.d.).

            The Court went even further in Johnson v. Zerbst (1938). By then, the appointment of counsel for those defendants who could not pay for the services of counsel was made an absolute requirement. In emphasizing the importance of counsel, Justice Black said that “The Sixth Amendment withholds from federal courts, in all criminal proceedings, the power and authority to deprive an accused of his life or liberty unless he ahs or waives the assistance of counsel.” In cases where defendants waive their right to be represented by counsel, the Court said that such waivers “must be by the intelligent choice of the defendant, will not be presumed from a silent record, and must be determined by the trial court before proceeding in the absence of counsel.” In other words, no criminal case should be tried before the defendant has acquired the services of counsel, has been provided with a court-appointed counsel if he or she could not afford to pay for one, or has waived his or her right to counsel (FindLaw, n.d.).

            When the Seventh Amendment was ratified, it was initially assumed that the defendants in civil cases had a right to a trial by jury composed of twelve men under the supervision of a judge. Further, that the jury must vote unanimously in order to reach a verdict. However, this interpretation was changed in 1973 in Colgrove v. Batti where the Court, voting five –to-four, decided that under the provisions of the Seventh Amendment, a civil case jury composed only of six members was permissible. Aside from the Seventh Amendment, the Court also ruled that congressional enactments could allow six-member juries for civil cases (FindLaw, n.d.).

Traditionally, Congress had, “by statute, provided for the trial of issues of fact in civil cases by the court without the intervention of a jury, only when the parties waive their right to a jury by a stipulation in writing.” However, after the Federal Rules were formulated, the parties to a civil suit were already allowed to waive their right to a trial by jury as long as they put their agreement in writing and then submit the same to the court, even in the absence of a legislative provision to the effect. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure grants the right to one party to demand for a jury trial simply by notifying the other party of his or her demand. The failure on the part of both parties to make such a demand, however, would be interpreted as a waiver of their rights to a jury trial (FindLaw, n.d.).       

            The enactment and subsequent judicial developments affecting the Sixth Amendment impacted greatly on the rights of the individual Americans accused in criminal cases. For starters, the courts were compelled to treat the rights of the accused with more respect. Then it became apparent that lower courts could not just ignore the law because their decisions were subject to the Supreme Court’s review. For instance, when the lower court tried to railroad eight young blacks in Powell v. Alabama by denying their right to counsel in a trial which was conducted in haste, the Supreme Court set its judgment aside in a ruling which declared, in effect, that the lower court violated the due process of law by denying the accused of their right to counsel (FindLaw, n.d.). In so doing, the Supreme Court showed that the lower court, or any court, for that matter, has neither right nor authority to deny any American citizen of their rights under the constitution.

            Meanwhile, the Sixth Amendment and its jury trial later proved costly to the federal government, requiring a prohibitive budget for its implementation. This gave rise to the practice of plea bargaining which aimed to save the federal government precious dollars. What happened was that prosecutors entered into plea bargaining agreements with defendants in criminal cases in order to convince them to plead guilty before the cases reach the court. The judge even cooperates with the prosecutor in cases where sentence bargains are being offered. In other words, the right of the accused to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment is being effectively curtailed through the cooperative efforts of the courts, the prosecutors, and the court-appointed lawyers in the practice of plea bargaining.

            On the other side of the spectrum the plea bargaining practices are opposed by the emerging mandatory sentencing practices. The latter is to a great extent the government reaction to numerous jury verdicts that obviously resulted not from the just intents, but from jury’s own inclinations (like Nelson’s case). Mandatory sentencing limits court’s (and jury’s) discretion in certain cases by establishing an obligation for the court to punish the defendant with some minimal punishment in case proved guilty. Mandatory sentencing typically touches felonies and repeated crimes. For example, in 1973 a minimum of 15 years or life imprisonment became a mandatory sentence in New York for possessing more than four ounce of hard drugs. (Greenwood, 1995).

            Mandatory sentencing practices can be views as direct borrowing from the Civil Law system where the law typically establishes a minimal and maximal punishment for concrete crimes. Yet it caused sharp debate in the Common Law system where it was deemed as limiting the court discretion and undermining the basic legal concept of free trial. However those considerations did not prevent governments from introducing mandatory sentencing. This includes American Federal Sentencing Guidelines and Californian “Three strikes law”. What is more alarming is that other common law jurisdictions like Australia or Singapore applied to mandatory sentencing in their legal system. This indicates a grave crisis of the criminal litigation caused by increasing inefficiency of its institutions, including those granted by the Sixth and Seventh amendments.

            Probably the oddest case of mandatory sentencing are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines that limit the judge’s discretion with pretty technical rules like tables and calculators and make litigation similar to a machinery which produces a predictable result. Although the Guidelines are obligatory for the court, their constitutionality has been often disputed in criminal cases. In United States v. Booker the Supreme Court has ruled that the Guidelines originally constituted a violation of the right to a trial by jury granted by Sixth amendment. Further this view has been supported in similar cases like Blakely v. Washington causing the guidelines to be viewed as recommendatory but not mandatory. In this case the Sixth amendment prevailed actually eliminating the idea of mandatory sentence established by the guidelines. (Report on the Impact of the Booker).

            Another case of mandatory sentencing practice are the so-called (three strike laws (in some jurisdictions – two strike laws). These are the statutes enacted by state governments that require courts to punish repeated crime with a minimum years of imprisonment. This relates most rottenly to serious criminal offences in three or more cases, although there are cases (like Ochoa) when the rule has been applied to less grave violations like fraud.

            Although the practice of imposing linger sentences in case of repeated crimes is not new, it has been firstly affirmed by legislature in a Common Law jurisdiction in 1993 when Washington State voters approved Directive 593. In California the similar decision has been passes under the name “Proposition 184”. The concept continued to spread throughout the country and currently the majority of American states have a law establishing the tree strikes rule and in fact imposing a life imprisonment without parole for three proved felonies. Exact application varies from state to state, yet the general Californian rule speaks of the mandatory conviction for the third felony that is deemed to be either violent, or serious or both.     (Zimring, Hawkins, Kamin 2001).

            The most notorious result of the three-strikes laws are grave sentences for minor crimes in case of poor previous criminal record. Perhaps the most famous of all is Weber’s case where a person has been punished with 26 years of imprisonment for stealing four chocolates while the previous two times he has been convicted for burglary and assault with deadly weapon. It is not hard to conclude that the situation results from poorly developed legal prescription, where the legislators failed to calculate all the consequences of their affirmation. It is thus up to further court and constitutional development to overcome this gap, since mandatory sentencing itself can already hardly be eliminated from American legal system.

            As any new legal practice, especially in case this practice is so contradictory, mandatory sentencing caused much debate. The advocates of mandatory sentencing point out that it is likely to reduce crime for the criminals will be sure to be punished in case they are caught, while the opponents argue that it directly violates the Sixth Amendment by limiting judges discretion and the right to be tried by a jury. Yet this dispute appears to be rather dogmatic than practical.

            It can be observed that mandatory sentencing practices does not in fact include any direct violation of the Sixth and Seventh Amendment, since those amendments cover the basic right to be tried by impartial court, but not the right or the court to establish laws that have to be applied during the trial. The matter is that cases are possible when those practices would be contrary to the spirit of the Bill of Rights as it was in Ewing v. California. where the court has found nothing “unreasonable and unusual” in punishing a person who has stolen three golf clubs with 25 years of prison under California three-strikes law.

            The Sixth and Seventh Amendments were introduced in order to protect the rights of Americans accused in criminal and civil cases. Certain developments, however, emerged which contravened the objectives of the Sixth Amendment. The growing popularity of plea bargaining, a practice which effectively prevents criminal cases from reaching the courts and, in effect, the juries, has worked against the intents of the Sixth Amendment. Under this practice, poor defendants are being forced into a corner and compelled to enter a guilty plea simply because they could not afford to pay for the services of qualified and dedicated lawyers. They are therefore being convicted and sentenced to long prison sentences or even death without the benefit of putting up a defense in front of a jury. On the other hand, the spreading mandatory sentencing practices undermine the basics of the Bill of Right as well, since their unreasonable application has already resulted in several unjustifiably severe punishments. In fact, current application of the Sixth and Seventh amendment has become so intricate that the original idea behind those amendments is almost forgotten.   Notwithstanding the noble intents of the Sixth Amendment, therefore, it is bound to fail as long as plea bargaining is allowed to go unchecked, and as the courts discretion is often limited by mandatory sentence prescriptions. Therefore, if the federal government is really sincere in granting the individual American’s right to a speedy trial in front of an impartial jury, it should do its part with enough sincerity and not hide behind the facade of cost-cutting by encouraging the practice of plea bargaining.

References

Britannia.com. (1215). Magna Carta. Retrieved March 14, 2009, from

http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/magna2.html

Criminal Law: An Overview. Retrieved March 14, 2009, from

http://www.lexisnexis.com/lawschool/study/understanding/pdf/CrimLawCh1.pdf

Findlaw. (n.d.). U.S. CONSTITUTION: SIXTH AMENDMENT. Retrieved March 14, 2009,

            from http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/amendment06/

Leo, J. (1995). The Color of the Law. Retrieved March 14, 2009, from

            http://www.usnews.com/usnews/opinion/articles/951016/archive_033097.htm

Mnookin, J.L. (2005). Plea Bargaining’s Triumph: A History of Plea Bargaining in America.

            Stanford Law Review, Vol. 57. Retrieved March 14, 2009, from

            http://www.questia.com/googleScholar.qst?docId=5009535836

Shepard, R.T. (2008). State Court Reform of the American Jury. The Yale Law Journal.

            Retrieved March 14, 2009, from http://yalelawjournal.org/2008/03/18/shepard.html

The Charters of Freedom. (n.d.). Bill of Rights. United States v. Booker Retrieved May 4, 2009, from http://www.ussc.gov/booker_report/Booker_Report.pdf

            http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights.html

Report on the Impact of the Booker by the United States Sentencing Commission. Greenwood P. (1995) Three Strikes and You’re Out: Estimated Benefits and Costs of California’s New Mandatory-Sentencing Law. Rand Corporation

Zimring F.E., Hawkins G. Kamin S. (2001) Punishment and Democracy: Three Strikes and You’re Out in California New York: Oxford University Press

Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003) Retrieved May 4, http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=000&invol=01-6978 

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