Supreme Court Criminal Law News - U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court - The FindLaw U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries Blog

Recently in Criminal Law Category

Some cases from the last term will take awhile to make their impact in lower courts. There are only so many abortion restrictions to overthrow, for example. District courts aren't often called to interpret "one person, one vote."

But some cases have quickly impacted litigation, garnering hundreds of citations in district, appellate, and state courts in just a matter of months. These are the decisions that may not make the most headlines, but they seem to be having the most impact.

Briefs are starting to trickle into the Supreme Court in the case of Buck v. Davis, a death penalty case that promises to be one of the more important decisions of the upcoming term. Duane Edward Buck, who is African American, was sentenced to death in 1997, after one of his defense's own experts claimed that Buck was more likely to reoffend because of his race.

Now, Buck's attorneys and several amici are arguing that he deserves to have his punishment reconsidered, given the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his sentencing.

The Supreme Court today is not what it was just ten months ago, when the Court kicked off its October 2015 term. Some of the differences are obvious. Justice Scalia is no longer with us, having passed away in February. The Court's seminal swing justice, Justice Kennedy, has started to swing more decidedly to the left. The vacancy created by Justice Scalia's death remains unfilled, leading to a series of deadlocked decisions in important cases.

None of that is surprising for those who have been paying attention. But in a recent year-in-review piece for the California Bar Journal, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Irvine School of Law, pointed out something that's been getting less attention: the past term, on the whole, was great for criminal defendants.

As the kids say, Justice Sotomayor is woke. In the era of #BlackLivesMatter, a time when Travon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner (and so many more) are household names, Justice Sotomayor is taking on the criminal justice system from the Supreme Court bench.

Over the past term, she has increasingly called out, often in solitary dissents, abuses in the criminal justice system. Hers is a voice concerned with not just the logic of the law, but the way it plays out in real life. And it is a voice not afraid to call things by their name, offering scathing critiques of how racism and abuses of power are reflected in excessive criminalization and the erosion of civil rights.

The Supreme Court expanded the reach yesterday of a federal law that prevents domestic abusers from owning a gun. In Voisine v. United States, the Court held six to two that federal laws prohibiting gun ownership to those convicted of a "misdemeanor crime of violence" extend to those where the violence was merely reckless, as opposed to intentional.

The ruling reconciles the federal law, which requires a showing of violence, with state criminal laws that require no such showing. Touching on both criminal law and the Second Amendment, the case inspired Justice Clarence Thomas's first question from the bench in ten years when it was argued in February.

We might have found Justice Scalia's replacement. No, we're not talking about Merrick Garland, any of the potential justices proposed by Donald Trump, or even Justice Clarence Thomas, who broke his ten-year silence by piping up at oral arguments to defend Justice Scalia's approach to the Second Amendment. Nope, Justice Scalia's shoes may have been filled by a woman who shared the bench with him for the past seven years: Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Scalia, you'll remember, was always at his best in his dissents, which were impassioned, wry, and often well-argued, even when patently offensive. But with her dissent in yesterday's ruling in Utah v. Strieff, Justice Sotomayor may have claimed the mantel of the Supreme Court's greatest dissenter.

Federal law makes it a felony for a habitual offender to commit domestic assault within Indian country, when the abuser has two or more prior convictions for domestic violence. And since the law seeks to protect Native American women from abuse, those predicate convictions can come from tribal courts.

But tribal courts are not required to provide lawyers for criminal defendants in many cases, including misdemeanor domestic assault charges. And while that would be a violation of the Sixth Amendment should it occur in state or federal court, that does not stop federal courts from relying on lawyerless tribal convictions as predicate offenses for the domestic violence law, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday.

Getting a judge removed from a case is no easy task. After all, under federal law, it is up to the judges themselves to determine, on their own, whether a conflict of interest could lead to their impartiality being questioned. Other than a judge's own conscience, there's little to require recusals in cases of potential judicial bias.

But the Supreme Court took a small step towards establishing some hard and fast constitutional rules yesterday. The case that brought about the change was about as stark an example of judicial conflict of interest as one can get. Terrence Williams, a man sentenced to death for the brutal killing of a church deacon, appealed his conviction to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, only to have it heard by that court's chief justice who had overseen his prosecution decades earlier.

Puerto Rico may have its own constitution, elect its own leaders, and pass its own laws, but when it comes down to it, Congress, not the people of Puerto Rico, is the ultimate source of the island government's power. That's the lesson from today's Supreme Court ruling in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, over whether the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico could prosecute criminals already tried by the federal government, as the 50 states can.

Under the dual-sovereignty doctrine, both federal and state governments may prosecute an individual for a crime, so long as they do so under their own laws. Puerto Rico argued that it was entitled to the same rights as the states when it came to double jeopardy. But, while acknowledging Puerto Rico's "distinctive, indeed exceptional status," the Court ultimately determined that Puerto Rico's prosecutorial power comes from the U.S. Congress, rejecting the island's claim to state-like sovereignty. The ruling is a blow to the island, and it may soon be followed by more Supreme Court losses in the near future.

Questions about race, intellectual disability, and the death penalty will return to the halls of the Supreme Court in the near future. Yesterday, the Court agreed to hear appeals in two capital punishment cases out of Texas.

The first, Buck v. Stephens, involves a defendant who was sentenced to death after a psychologist, called to the stand by his own lawyer, testified that black defendants were more dangerous than white ones. The second, Moore v. Texas, concerns whether Texas can rely solely on an outdated, 23-year-old standard for determining intellectual disabilities for purposes of capital punishment, to the exclusion of modern standards.