Delaware v. Van Arsdall

LOCATION: Superior Court of California, Riverside County

DOCKET NO.: 84-1279
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: Delaware Supreme Court

CITATION: 475 US 673 (1986)
ARGUED: Jan 22, 1986
DECIDED: Apr 07, 1986

John R. Williams - on behalf of the respondents
Paul J. Larkin, Jr. - on behalf of the United States as amicus curiae in support of the petitioner
Richard E. Fairbanks, Jr. - on behalf of the petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Delaware v. Van Arsdall

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 22, 1986 in Delaware v. Van Arsdall

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in Delaware against Van Arsdall.

Mr. Fairbanks, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Richard E. Fairbanks, Jr.:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed Robert Van Arsdall's murder conviction because he was not permitted to cross examine Robert Fleetwood on the issue of bias.

The bias claim arose because the state had entered into a... dropped a traffic violation for Mr. Fleetwood.

Reversal was not mandated in the Delaware Supreme Court's opinion because Robert Fleetwood's testimony was important or critical... he was a critical witness, or that its impact in any way affected the outcome.

The Delaware Supreme Court determined that the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution imposed a per se reversal rule requiring reversal in all cases in which a single witness was not subject to complete bias cross examination.

We do not argue with the holding of the Delaware Supreme Court that bias cross examination in this case should have been permitted.

Our position is simply that reversal is not mandated under the Sixth Amendment unless there is a determination by the court that the impact was affected by the witness's testimony, or that if the witness had been impeached the result would have been the same.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Fairbanks, does the state concede that there was a violation of the Constitution here, the confrontation clause?

Is that the error?

And then you want us to apply a harmless error rule to it?

Richard E. Fairbanks, Jr.:

Your Honor, we concede that the cross examination should have been permitted.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Was it a violation of the confrontation clause in the state's view--

Richard E. Fairbanks, Jr.:

Your Honor--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--to restrict the cross examination?

Richard E. Fairbanks, Jr.:

--Where you draw a line between cross examination and remedy is not clear.

The State of Delaware is content with the harmless error rule in this case.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, I am just trying to determine what the state's position is, whether it is a concession that there was a constitutional error to which the harmless error rule should then be applied, or whether there was no confrontation clause violation in the first place.

Richard E. Fairbanks, Jr.:

Justice O'Connor, we have not and the parties have not taken a position on that point.

The parties have taken the position that the cross-examination should have been permitted, and that harmless error should be a determination at some point, or at least outcome determinative prejudice should be a determination at some point.

We do not concede that the violation occurs without consideration of prejudice.

We do not assert that position in this case.

We simply assert that at some point along the line considerations of outcome determinative prejudice is appropriate.

The Delaware Supreme Court excluded such considerations from its opinion and from its determination.

It reversed solely and exclusively because there was not the requisite quantity of cross examination.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

But it just seems to me, Mr. Fairbanks, that we have to approach the analysis some way, and I am wondering if it is the state's position that you focus on the prejudice in determining whether there is a violation in the first place or whether you focus on it after you concede a violation to determine whether it is harmless.

Richard E. Fairbanks, Jr.:

Your Honor, this Court has recognized that cross examination restriction cases raise confrontation clause problems because restrictions on cross examination emasculate the right.

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Fairbanks, throughout your brief you have cited Chapman against California, and did not the Court hold in that case that it doesn't make any difference whether it is a constitutional violation or some other violation that the harmless error rule applies to both categories?

Richard E. Fairbanks, Jr.:

Your Honor, Chapman stands for the proposition that at least for federal constitutional violations there is not an automatic reversal rule mandated in all cases, and that therefore some consideration--

Warren E. Burger:

Undoubtedly courts would look more... give a much closer scrutiny to a constitutional violation, wouldn't you think, than they would to some other statutory or regulation--