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Reversing convictions for assault and attempted murder, the U.S. Supreme Court last week ruled that a trial court violated a Washington state man’s Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him. The trial court had admitted into evidence a recorded statement made by the man’s wife, after he had asserted his spousal privilege to keep her from testifying against him. Crawford v. Washington, No. 02-9410. Use of the wife’s statement, the high court said, violated the confrontation clause because, where testimonial statements are at issue, the only criterion of their reliability that is sufficient to satisfy constitutional demands is confrontation. In so ruling, the justices overturned their 1980 decision in Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U.S. 56. In Roberts, the court had held that a jury could hear evidence, based upon only a judicial determination of reliability, without that proof being subjected to the adversarial process. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the court’s opinion. He was joined by justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. Joined by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist concurred in part, stating that he would not have overturned Roberts. In another Sixth Amendment case, the court on March 8 affirmed the sentencing of an Iowa man convicted for the third time of driving under the influence of alcohol. Iowa v. Tovar, No. 02-1541. Defendant Felipe E. Tovar had argued that his first conviction, on a guilty plea, was made without a knowing intelligent waiver of his right to counsel at the pleadings stage. That plea in the first conviction had an adverse impact on the sentence Tovar received for the third conviction. Iowa’s Supreme Court had reversed a pair of lower court rulings rejecting Tovar’s attack on that first conviction. The Iowa high court held that during Tovar’s plea colloquy, the trial judge failed to explain adequately to him that his waiver of counsel entailed the risk that he would overlook a viable defense or miss out on an independent opinion as to whether he should plead guilty. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion reversing the Iowa high court, Ginsburg wrote that neither of those warnings is mandated by the Sixth Amendment.

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