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Facts and Case Summary - Carey v. Musladin

Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 127 S. Ct. 649 (2006)
A defendant in a murder trial is not deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury if courtroom spectators wear buttons showing a picture of the deceased.


Matthew Musladin was on trial for the murder of Tom Strudder in California. At his trial, members of the Strudder family wore buttons with a picture of Strudder on them. They sat in the seating area reserved for the public. The buttons were about two to four inches in diameter and were visible to the judge, jury, prosecutor, defense lawyers, and the defendant. The trial judge denied a defense motion to order the members of the family to remove the buttons, arguing that they could be used to unfairly prejudice the jury, and thus deny Musladin a fair trial by an impartial jury as required by the Sixth Amendment, as incorporated to the states via the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Musladin was convicted, and his conviction was upheld by the California state courts. Musladin then filed a habeas corpus suit in appropriate U.S. District Court. A habeas corpus suit allows a defendant to sue the government, arguing that the government has violated the defendant's rights. If the court agrees, it releases the defendant. The U.S. District Court rejected the defendant's argument, but the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the buttons could have prejudiced the jury. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear this case.


Whether courtroom spectators wearing buttons showing a picture of a murder victim during the trial of the alleged murderer may deprive the defendant of his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury, as applied to the states via the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


No. 9-0. The Supreme Court vacated (set aside) the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that the buttons could have prejudiced the jury. This reinstated the state court decision that wearing such buttons did not deprive the defendant of an impartial jury.


There was no clearly defined prohibition against such behavior by private citizens. Past Supreme Court decisions only dealt with state-sponsored practices. Since there was no prior Supreme Court holding regarding the potentially prejudicial effect of spectators’ courtroom conduct, the Supreme Court let stand the California State Appellate Court decision that wearing the buttons did not deprive the defendant of an impartial jury.


Justice Kennedy

Justice Anthony Kennedy said that there was no evidence that the buttons caused any type of disruption; thus, they should be permitted. He did, however, note that perhaps courts have the authority, as a preventive measure, to prohibit the wearing of buttons or other signs of expression in a courtroom if the buttons (or other forms of expression) concern the case being heard.

Justice Souter

Justice David H. Souter concurred with the majority opinion, but added that the court should have focused solely on the issue of whether the spectators' actions were "unreasonable." Since the wearing of buttons by spectators was not "unreasonable," they were permitted. Moreover, Justice Souter notes that, although the issue was not addressed substantially in this case, perhaps the First Amendment's guarantees of freedom of speech and expression afforded the spectators some protection in this case.

Justice Stevens

Justice John Paul Stevens agreed with Justice Souter's concurrences, but said that, contrary to Justice Souter's suggestion, the First Amendment cannot be read to protect expression by spectators in the courtroom that might impact courtroom proceedings.