Robertson v. United States ex rel. Watson

PETITIONER: John Robertson
RESPONDENT: United States, ex rel. Wykenna Watson
LOCATION: Superior Court, District of Columbia

DOCKET NO.: 08-6261
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)
LOWER COURT: District of Columbia Court of Appeals

CITATION: 560 US 272 (2010)
GRANTED: Dec 14, 2009
ARGUED: Mar 31, 2010
DECIDED: May 24, 2010

Elena Kagan - Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae, supporting the respondent
Jaclyn S. Frankfurt - for the petitioner
Robert A. Long, Jr. - for the respondent

Facts of the case

A victim who obtained a civil protection order ("CPO") against John Robertson moved to hold him in criminal contempt for violating the order. A District of Columbia Superior Court convicted Mr. Robertson on three counts of criminal contempt for violating the CPO. Mr. Robertson moved to vacate the convictions, which was denied. On appeal, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed Mr. Robertson's conviction.


Is an action for criminal contempt in a congressionally created court brought in the name and pursuant to the power of a private person, rather than in the name and pursuant to the power of the United States, constitutional?

Media for Robertson v. United States ex rel. Watson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 31, 2010 in Robertson v. United States ex rel. Watson

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We will hear argument next in Case 08-6261, Robertson v. United States, ex rel. Watson.

Ms. Frankfurt.

Jaclyn S. Frankfurt:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case presents the question whether, under our Constitution, the power to prosecute criminal contempt in a Federal court rests solely with the sovereign.

The United States now agrees that the fact that a criminal offense may only be prosecuted by the sovereign is a foundational premise of our Constitution.

Because Mr. Robertson was prosecuted for criminal contempt in a private right of action, his prosecution was unconstitutional, a nullity in our view, and his convictions must be vacated.

Ms. Watson defends the lower court's ruling that--

Antonin Scalia:

Excuse me.

He didn't make that argument, though.

I mean, his -- as I recall, his only complaint was that he had been promised that -- that he wouldn't be -- he wouldn't be prosecuted.

And that was his only complaint below, wasn't it?

Jaclyn S. Frankfurt:

--His complaint below was that he had a plea agreement with the United States.

Antonin Scalia:


Jaclyn S. Frankfurt:

And that the only lawful or constitutional way he could have been prosecuted was in an action brought by the United States; that the local statute didn't authorize a private right of action, and that the Constitution could not--

Antonin Scalia:

He made the constitutional claim below?

Jaclyn S. Frankfurt:

--He said below that -- that a private right of action was neither lawful under the local statutes nor constitutional, and the parties responded that it was; and the lower court held it is authorized by local statute; it's constitutional; in fact, this was a private right of action prosecuted by Ms. Watson on her own behalf and therefore your plea agreement fails.

We have never argued, if it was actually her prosecuting, that -- that she was bound by the plea agreement.

We argued it can't be her prosecuting, it can't be under the Constitution, it can't be under the local statute.

And if it's the United States, then we are entitled to the benefit of the plea agreement we had with the United States.

The -- Ms. Watson defends the lower court ruling that a private right of criminal action is constitutional, but really has mounted -- excuse me -- mounted very little attack on our constitutional argument that the Constitution contemplates that crimes are public wrongs brought on behalf of sovereigns.

Sonia Sotomayor:

Excuse me.

We have plenty of plea agreements jurisprudence that say if the Southern District of New York prosecutes someone and they sign a plea agreement and say, we're not going to prosecute you for further crimes, we read that to mean that the Southern District of New York won't prosecute you for further crimes.

We don't read it that no other government agency is bound, who has jurisdiction over that criminal activity, that they are equally bound.

So why isn't this case the same?

Assuming -- that you're making a broad statement, that this has to be brought in the name of the government.

Assuming that's correct, does that mean that -- why does that mean that both the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Attorney General's Office, which appear to be two different entities enforcing two different sets of law, why would both be bound?

Jaclyn S. Frankfurt:

Well, it's important to clarify, because there is -- there is a lack of -- it is not parallel to the Federal system.

So even assuming -- and I believe there is a circuit -- that the Second Circuit says when the Southern District signs it's the Southern District only, and the Third, Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth view it differently when something reads as broadly as this, which is the government.

In the District of Columbia--

Antonin Scalia:

Excuse me.