Immigrant's Family
Loses High Court Battle

     (CN) - The Supreme Court on Monday ruled against the family of an immigrant whose cancerous penis was amputated after the government repeatedly denied him treatment for nearly a year. The justices said federal law "plainly" bars the relatives from suing the government doctor and health administrator responsible for his care.
     The justices unanimously blocked a lawsuit filed by Francisco Castaneda's estate, accusing a Public Health Service doctor of repeatedly refusing to order a biopsy of a bleeding lesion on Castaneda's penis, first reported in March 2006.
     Castaneda told medical personnel at the San Diego Correctional Facility that the irregular, raised lesion on his penis was growing, and that it frequently bled and oozed discharge, according to his family.
     The lesion became so painful that it interfered with his urination, defecation and sleep. But Dr. Esther Hui, a PHS employee, allegedly refused to order a biopsy, despite repeated recommendations to do so, because she deemed the procedure "elective in nature."
     Castaneda was instead given ibuprofen, antibiotics, laxatives and an extra weekly allotment of boxer shorts.
     A week after he was released from custody on Feb. 5, 2007, a biopsy revealed that he had penile cancer. His penis was amputated, and Castaneda underwent chemotherapy that was ultimately unsuccessful. He died in February 2008 at the age of 36.
     A federal judge called the government's actions "beyond cruel and unusual," and the 9th Circuit agreed that the estate could sue Hui and health services administrator Stephen Gonsalves.
     Arguments before the Supreme Court hinged on whether a change to the Federal Tort Claims Act bars the estate from suing federal employees in what's known as a Bivens action, which allows direct action against federal officers who violate someone's constitutional rights.
     "Based on the plain language ... we conclude that PHS officers and employees are not personally subject to Bivens actions for harms arising out of such conduct," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.
     The ruling adheres closely to the text of the Federal Tort Claims Act, which mandates that awards against the United States "shall be exclusive of any other civil action or proceeding" for any medical injury caused by a federal health service employee "acting within the scope of his office or employment."
     Sotomayor said none of the estate's arguments "persuades us that (the FTCA provision) means something other than what it says."
     Monday's ruling shuts down the estate's claims against Hui and Gonsalves.

Justices Defer to State Courts in Mistrial Case

     (CN) - The Supreme Court on Monday reinstated the second-degree murder conviction of a man who said the trial judge unnecessarily declared a mistrial after just four hours of jury deliberations. The 7-3 majority acknowledged that the judge "could have been more thorough," but said it wasn't up to federal courts to "second-guess the reasonable decisions of state courts."
     In the case of Reginald Lett, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the state appeals court's ruling vacating his conviction after a second trial. The state justices ruled that Lett's conviction did not violate the double jeopardy clause, which bars multiple trials over the same alleged crime.
     Lett argued that the first trial judge announced a mistrial without any "manifest necessity" for doing so. Jurors had sent the judge seven notes, one of which asked, "What if we can't agree? Mistrial? Retrial? What?"
     The judge asked the foreperson if the jury would reach a unanimous verdict. The foreperson said no, and judge declared a mistrial. A second jury found Lett guilty of second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of a taxi driver at a Detroit liquor store.
     When Lett's appeals failed at the state-court level, he filed a federal habeas petition.
     A federal judge granted his petition, and a split panel of the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati affirmed.
     Michigan appealed to the nation's top court, arguing that federal courts should defer to state courts on habeas review.
     The majority agreed and held that the Michigan Supreme Court had acted reasonably in reinstating Lett's conviction.
     "[T]he Michigan Supreme Court's decision upholding the trial judge's exercise of discretion -- while not necessarily correct -- was not objectively unreasonable," Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote. He said the 6th Circuit "failed to grant the Michigan courts the dual layers of deference" required by federal law.
     Dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens took issue with the trial judge's ruling, saying it deprived Lett of his right to a fair trial. "The record suggests that she discharged the jury without considering any less extreme courses of action and ... did not fully appreciate the scope or significance of the ancient right at stake."
     Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer joined Steven's dissent.