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Two Important Criminal Cases Open Supreme Court's October Term

View of the US Supreme Court Building on a bright Christmas Day
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on October 11, 2019 4:53 PM

The Supreme Court's October Term opened this week, and two criminal cases headlined the first day of oral arguments. The first case, Kahler v. Kansas, involved whether a state can abolish the insanity defense to criminal crimes; and the second, Ramos v. Louisiana, asked whether criminal jury verdicts need to be unanimous.

This was the last chance for attorneys from both sides to convince the justices, and although final decisions are still pending, oral arguments, and the questions justices ask during them, can give insight into which way the Court may be leaning. Here's a look.

Insanity

You've probably heard of the insanity defense, but different jurisdictions may apply different standards and those standards (and the effects) can be easily misunderstood. A few states, Kansas among them, have even passed laws prohibiting the insanity defense. Instead, in this case, Kansas only had to prove that Jeffrey Kahler intended to kill four family members in 2009, and mental illness could not otherwise be a defense to his crime. Kahler claimed the state's abolition of the insanity defense was unconstitutional.

A few of the justices seemed skeptical that removing a statutory insanity defense harmed criminal defendants generally, or would've made any difference in Kahler's case in particular. Justice Brett Kavanaugh pointed out that Kansas still allowed juries to consider a defendant's mental state when determining if they intended to commit a criminal act. "So they haven't necessarily abolished the insanity defense," he said. "I think that's a bit of a misnomer." And Justice Neil Gorsuch wondered if the availability of a uniform insanity defense would be required for all felonies.

Kahler's attorney asserted it "should be applied everywhere," but also noted, "It's invoked in less than one percent of the cases and successful in only a quarter of that," so it would be a "rarely used defense."

The Court's liberal justices seemed to side with Kahler, asking the state's attorneys whether not having the insanity defense meant convicting more people with mental illness. While Kansas solicitors contended there is “no agreement on when mental illness should excuse criminal responsibility," Justice Elena Kagan pushed back. She seemed unpersuaded by the state's rule focusing solely on intent, noting that historically, "there's just a ton that suggests there was something more than that the defendant be able to form an intent to kill."

Unanimity

States laws also vary on whether jury verdicts in criminal cases must be unanimous to carry a conviction. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment requires federal jury verdicts to be unanimous, but states could use a different standard. To date, only Oregon and Louisiana allowed non-unanimous verdicts, and Louisiana recently rescinded their rule, moving to a unanimous jury requirement. Evangelisto Ramos, claimed his conviction of a 2014 murder, the result of a 10-2 jury vote, should be overturned.

Both sides appeared to argue for overturning the 1972 ruling, but for different reasons. Ramos's attorney argued that states should not be allowed to set their own standard, and the prior decision allowing non-unanimous verdicts hinged on "reasoning flouted precedent at the time and has since been relegated to nothing more than an isolated relic of an abandoned doctrine." Meanwhile, the Louisiana solicitor argued that the Sixth Amendment never required a unanimous jury verdict.

And both sides faced serious questions from the justices, based on the legal theory known as "stare decisis." Latin for "let the decision stand," it refers to the policy of courts to abide by or adhere to principles established by decisions in earlier cases.

Justice Elena Kagan pushed back against the argument that the Court's prior ruling was "an abandoned relic of past jurisprudence," noting, "We tolerate a pretty significant degree of diversity in state criminal procedure." And Justice Samuel Alito worried about opening the floodgates on future litigation about whether a new rule would apply retroactively.

When Louisiana argued that a ruling in Ramos's favor could call into question 32,000 convictions in the state, Justice Neil Gorsuch wondered "whether we should worry about their interests under the Sixth Amendment as well." "I can't help but wonder," he asked, "should we forever ensconce an incorrect view of the United States Constitution for perpetuity, for all states and all people, denying them a right that we believe was originally given to them because of 32,000 criminal convictions in Louisiana?"

The decisions in either case aren't expected until the end of the year, and if you'd like to read the oral arguments transcripts for yourself, you can find them here and here.

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