Supreme Court returns home

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent  |  Nov. 5, 2001 at 12:23 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court returned to its usual home to hear argument Monday, the first time the justices have sat on Capitol Hill in more than a week.

In an indication that normalcy is returning to the Hill -- much of the nearby congressional office space also reopened Monday -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist made no mention of the recent anthrax scare as he called the day's argument to order.

An air filter at the court's off-site mail-screening facility in Maryland tested positive for the anthrax bacterium late last month. A little more than a week ago, the bacterium also was found in the main mailroom of the court itself.

However, 440 court employees and journalists tested negative for anthrax exposure, and no anthrax was found in the rest of the courthouse.

The mailroom was decontaminated late last week and employees and journalists returned full time Monday.

The public was allowed to enter the building only to hear the sole argument, however, and not allowed tours.

The one unsettling message Monday was a "note to press" from the court saying any delivery to the building "by messenger or courier -- mail from your (news) bureaus, (legal) briefs etc. -- will be screened in the same manner as mail received by the court."

In other words, it will be screened for bacteria and held up a day or two before being delivered to the court pressroom.

The justices heard only one argument Monday, the case of a condemned man who said his lawyer had a conflict of interest.

Walter Mickens Jr. was charged with murder and forcible sodomy after the body of 17-year-old Timothy Jason Hall was found near the James River in Newport News, Va., in 1992.

Hall was naked from the waist down had been stabbed 143 times and there was evidence of anal rape.

Two witnesses put Mickens on the scene near the body, and pubic hair found on Hall's body was "consistent" with the defendant's. Another witness had Mickens selling a pair of shoes that Hall had worn on the day he was killed.

Mickens's court-appointed lead attorney at trial was Bryan Saunders. However, Saunders had also represented an usual client earlier -- Hall.

The teenaged Hall had been charged with assaulting his mother, and with an urelated violation of carrying a concealed weapon.

A few days before the murder, Saunders met briefly with Hall to discuss his legal problems.

Mickens's case went up and down the appeals court ladder in state court. But it wasn't until he filed in federal court that he first claimed a conflict of interest had denied him the effective assistance of counsel, as guaranteed by the Sixth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.

A federal judge ruled for prosecutors. A three-judge appeals court panel reversed, but the panel's ruling was reversed itself by the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, sitting en banc.

Mickens then asked the Supreme Court for review. The justices agreed to hear argument, and Mickens's execution, scheduled for last spring, was stayed until the high court rules.

Mickens was represented Monday by Robert Wagner of the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Richmond, Va.

Mickens contends he was denied his right to effective counsel because of Saunders's representation of the victim, Hall.

Speaking for the prosecution Monday before the justices was state Assistant Attorney General Robert Harris. A Bush administration lawyer, Assistant U.S. Solicitor General Irving Gornstein, spoke in support of Harris.

(No. 00-9285, Mickens vs. Taylor)

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