Clicking the icon following the number of each case cited below will link you directly to the cited opinion. AG Advisory Opinions are accessible from the list of links.
United States Supreme Court
The Court will be on a four week recess. The next sitting will begin on February 22, 2016.
Montgomery v. Louisiana, 14-280. Filed 01/25/16. Summaries by Dan Schweitzer at NAAG.
In Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), the Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment requires that, before a juvenile may be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for committing a homicide offense, a judge or jury must give “consideration [to] the juvenile’s special circumstances in light of the principles and purposes of juvenile sentencing.” By a 6-3 vote, the Court held that the rule announced in Miller is a substantive rule that applies retroactively to cases on collateral review. The Court reasoned that Miller did more than establish new procedural requirements; it “determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but ‘the rare juvenile offender’” and thereby “rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for ‘a class of defendants because of their status.’” As a threshold matter, the Court held that it had jurisdiction to decide whether the Louisiana Supreme Court correctly refused to give retroactive effect to Miller. That is because, held the Court, “when a new substantive rule of constitutional law controls the outcome of a case, the Constitution requires state collateral review courts to give retroactive effect to that rule.”
Opinion: USSC 14-280_3204.pdf
Musacchio v. United States, 14-1095. Filed 01/25/16.
The Court unanimously resolved, against the defendant, two issues of federal criminal law that had divided the lower courts. First, it held “that, when a jury instruction sets forth all the elements of the charged crime but incorrectly adds one more element, a sufficiency [of the evidence] challenge should be assessed against the elements of the charged crime, not against the erroneously heightened command in the jury instruction.” Second, the Court held that a defendant who fails to raise a statute-of-limitations defense at trial may not raise it on appeal because “an unraised limitations defense . . . cannot be plain error” reviewable under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b).
Opinion: USSC 14-1095_2d8f.pdf
Kansas v. Carr, 14-449. Filed 01/20/16.
The Court held by an 8-1 vote that the Kansas Supreme Court erred when it overturned the death sentences imposed on three defendants, two of whom were tried jointly. First, the Kansas court erred in holding that the Eighth Amendment requires courts in capital cases “to affirmatively instruct the jury that mitigating circumstances need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” In the Court’s view, whether mitigating circumstances exist is a value judgment not susceptible to a standard of proof; it has never required affirmative instructions of this sort; and the instructions given to the juries here did not create a reasonable likelihood that it would have thought mitigating evidence had to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Second, the Kansas court erred in holding that the joint capital proceeding “violated the defendants’ Eighth Amendment right to an ‘individualized sentencing determination.’” The Court found that the defendants’ claim, “at bottom,” was that the joint proceeding led to “the jury consider[ing] evidence that would not have been admitted in a severed proceeding.” But, held the Court, that is more of a due process concern than an Eighth Amendment concern; and given all the evidence of the defendants’ brutal, multiple murders, the defendants failed to show that “the evidence ‘so infected the sentencing proceeding with unfairness as to render the jury’s imposition of the death penalty a denial of due process.’”
Opinion: USSC 14-449_9o7d.pdf
Hurst v. Florida, 14-7505. Filed 01/12/16.
By an 8-1 vote, the Court held that Florida’s death sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment in light of Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002). In Florida, if the jury finds by a majority vote that the statutory aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors, it recommends to the judge a sentence of death. The judge, giving that recommendation “great weight,” then independently finds and weighs aggravating and mitigating circumstances and enters a sentence of life or death. In Ring, however, the Court held that juries (not judges) must find an aggravating factor necessary for imposition of the death penalty. The Court here concluded that the Florida system violates Ring because, even though the jury’s death recommendation means a majority of the jury found the existence of an aggravating factor, “the Florida sentencing statute does not make a defendant eligible for death until . . . [t]he trial court alone . . . find[s] ‘the facts . . . [t]hat sufficient aggravating circumstances exist.’”
Opinion: USSC 14-7505_5ie6.pdf
White v. Wheeler, 14-1372. Filed 12/14/15.
Through a per curiam opinion, the Court unanimously reversed a Sixth Circuit decision that had granted relief to a habeas petition on the ground that his rights under Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968), and Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412 (1985), had been violated. Those decisions establish that states may remove a juror based on her opposition to the death penalty only where such opposition would substantially impair the performance of her duties. Here, the trial court sustained the prosecution’s strike of a juror on the ground that she could not impose the death penalty. The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, but the Sixth Circuit held that the state court unreasonable applied Witherspoon and Witt. Reversing, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Sixth Circuit failed properly to apply AEDPA deference; “[a] fairminded jurist could readily conclude that,” based on the juror’s statements during voir dire, the trial judge “was fair in the exercise of her ‘broad discretion’ in determining whether the juror was qualified to serve in a capital case.”
Opinion: USSC 14-1372_1p23.pdf
Certiorari Granted: Summaries by Dan Schweitzer at NAAG.
Dietz v. Bouldin, 15-458. Certiorari granted 01/19/16.
The Court will resolve “[w]hether, after a judge has discharged a jury from service in a case and the jurors have left the judge’s presence, the judge may recall the jurors for further service in the same case.” In this case, respondent admitted responsibility for an automobile accident and accepted liability for petitioner’s medical expenses — but the jury awarded petitioner $0 in damages. After the judge discharged the jury and the jurors left the courtroom, the judge determined that the verdict was invalid, recalled the jurors, set aside their verdict, and ordered the jury to deliberate again. The judge rejected petitioner’s objection that the proper course was a mistrial. The jury then awarded petitioner $15,000 in damages. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment, holding that recall of the discharged jurors was permissible.
Walter v. Pennsylvania 15-650. Certiorari denied 01/25/16
Issue: Whether, in all cases, the imposition of a sentence of death violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.
Fletcher v. Florida 15-6075. Certiorari denied 01/25/16.
Issue: Whether the affirmance by the Supreme Court of the State of Florida of defendant’s conviction for first-degree murder and sentence of death was clearly erroneous and violative of the Constitution of the United States.
Smith v. Florida 15-6430. Certiorari denied 01/25/16.
Issues: Whether Florida’s death penalty statute, which requires a judge rather than a jury to make findings of fact before the death penalty may be imposed, violated petitioner’s Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights as set forth in Ring v. Arizona and Apprendi v. New Jersey.
“Petitions We’re Watching.” Summaries @ SCOTUS.
The following cases are up for consideration at the Justices’ private conference on February 19, 2016:
15-533 Isom v. Indiana
Issue: Whether the determination that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances must be made by a unanimous jury, beyond a reasonable doubt.
14-10008 Wearry v. Cain
Issues: (1) Whether the Louisiana courts erred in failing to find that the State’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence violated its obligation under Brady v. Maryland and that this failure prejudiced the defense; and (2) whether the Louisiana courts erred in failing to find that petitioner’s sole attorney provided ineffective representation at the guilt phase of trial under Strickland v. Washington.
14-10078 Caetano v. Massachusetts
Issues: (1) Whether a stun gun is an “arm” within the meaning of the Second Amendment, and (2) whether Massachusetts’s blanket prohibition on the possession of stun guns infringes the right of the people to keep and bear arms in violation of the Second and Fourteenth Amendments.
15-276 Kansas v. Dull
Issue: Whether the Kansas Supreme Court misinterpreted and improperly expanded the Supreme Court's decisions in Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama when it extended those decisions to a sentence that does not involve life imprisonment, holding that the Eighth Amendment categorically bars a sentence of mandatory lifetime post release supervision (i.e., non-incarceration) for juveniles convicted of serious sex offenses.