Constitutional Law Case Scenario

HYPOTHETICAL: In West Sussex, Alabama district judge Robert Favre runs a very formal courtroom where justice is handed out quietly but swiftly. The formality of Favre’s courtroom is demonstrated by the fact that he runs all proceedings with an iron fist. Additionally, the judge begins every day with a prayer that asks God to allow him to act judiciously and fairly when dealing with defendants. These prayers, while nondenominational, are read by different members of the clergy each week. The pool of clergy includes several Presbyterian ministers; a few Catholic priests, but is mostly comprised of Southern Baptist ministers from the surrounding counties. These ministers are not paid, but on those days that they read the Court’s prayer, they are provided with breakfast at a local coffee shop across from the courthouse. To also help him serve justice, and to “show his place under God,” judge Favre carved a replica of the stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written. He took it upon himself to hang these tablets behind his bench for all to see. When asked why he put them in his courtroom, the judge said simply “we must all realize that no matter what our laws may be, we all live under God’s law and must follow it without question.” While protesters said he should remove them, Favre refused to do so. On January 5, 1999, Roger Vinatonka was brought into judge Favre’s courtroom to defend an accusation that he had robbed five gas stations in the past month. As this was the first case of the day judge Favre asked Southern Baptist minister Mordecai Brown to read the invocation. After he read the prayer, Vinatonka’s attorney objected that this prayer was a violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. Additionally, he objected to the Ten Commandments in the courtroom, as these also violate the wall of separation between church and state. His argument was that it was a violation of his client’s rights to be subjected to such prayers when he was not Christian, and his beliefs did not include praying to God or following the Ten Commandments. He also argued that for justice to be conducted fairly in this courtroom the prayers must be stopped and the Ten Commandments must be taken down. Favre overruled the objection and noted that even though Vinatonka was not a Christian these were ideals by which all “red blooded” Americans should live. Because Vinatonka waived his right to a jury trial the judge decided the case and found the defendant guilty. After telling him that “thou shall not steal” Vinatonka was sentenced to 3 years in a state prison. On appeal Vinatonka’s attorney argued that the trial was unfair and biased because it was conducted under the auspices of Christian tenets, which Vinatonka did not recognize which was a direct violation of the Establishment Clause. The appeals court in Alabama affirmed the conviction and said there was no First Amendment problem. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court. As a justice on the Court, how would you rule given the line of establishment clause cases decided by the Court? Should the judge be allowed to continue the prayers? Why or why not? Is there a way that the prayers could be altered so that they would not violate the establishment clause? How would you deal with the issue of the Ten Commandments? Should they be taken down, or can they stay as a symbol of respect for God? Finally, should Vinatonka be granted a new trial? Why or why not? You must cite cases from class to support your answers. There is no right answer, but all answers must be logical and supported with case law. Paper Submission Requirements: Your paper should be APA formatted and the body of your paper should be approximately two pages in length. References:  https://constitutioncenter.org/ https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/opinions.aspx

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