Crime Labs and the Confrontation Clause


Over at SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston has published a detailed summary and analysis of yesterday's important Sixth Amendment ruling from the Supreme Court in Bullcoming v. New Mexico, which centered on a criminal defendant's right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him." As Denniston writes:

The majority on Thursday ruled that Bullcoming's confrontation right had been violated because prosecutors were allowed to offer a crime lab report analyzing Bullcoming's blood sample, and had called to the witness stand not the lab analyst who did the tests, but a supervisor at the lab who had neither done the test nor observed it being done.  Producing such a substitute, or "surrogate," witness, the Court ruled, is not sufficient to satisfy the Sixth Amendment confrontation right.  This, the Court said, logically followed from the Melendez-Diaz ruling, which had ruled that a crime lab report could not be introduced without some live testimony from an analyst to defend it and to be cross-examined about it.

Bullcoming was a 5-4 decision, but the line-up did not follow the normal liberal/conservative divide. Joining Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's majority opinion in favor of an expansive reading of the Confrontation Clause were Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, while Justice Anthony Kennedy's dissent was joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Samuel Alito, and Chief Justice John Roberts. The biggest surprise here is Justice Sotomayor, who joined the Court after 2009's Melendez-Diaz decision. As Contributing Editor Radley Balko noted after her confirmation, Sotomayor's background as a prosecutor suggested she might vote for a narrower reading of the Confrontation Clause in future decisions. Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case here.