Tom Studer's family made a silent but powerful statement at the trial of his alleged murderer in California 11 years ago. They appeared in court...

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WASHINGTON — Tom Studer’s family made a silent but powerful statement at the trial of his alleged murderer in California 11 years ago. They appeared in court wearing lapel buttons emblazoned with photographs of him, wearing his Navy uniform and smiling.

Though the defense objected, the judge allowed the buttons. Matthew Musladin was convicted and sentenced to at least 32 years in prison; he says the buttons may have swayed the jury’s emotions, depriving him of his constitutional right to a fair trial.

Last year, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Musladin and overturned his conviction. Prosecutors appealed to the Supreme Court. Wednesday, the justices heard oral arguments in a case about legal due process, and the proper relationship between state and federal courts.

Gregory Ott, representing the state of California, told the court that even if the buttons may have influenced the jury, the state court’s ruling was entitled to be upheld by the federal courts.

A 1996 federal law says that federal judges should defer to state-court interpretations of the federal Constitution in criminal cases unless they clash with “clearly established” Supreme Court precedent. But the Supreme Court has never ruled before on the issue so there was no such precedent, Ott said.

David Fermino, Musladin’s lawyer, argued that the 9th Circuit ruling fit within a framework outlined by a 1986 ruling written by Justice Thurgood Marshall that suggested that courtroom practices “inherently prejudicial” to the defendant would violate the Constitution.

A decision is due by July.