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The Biggest Supreme Court Winners of the Past Term: Criminal Defendants

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 02, 2016 2:05 PM

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.

Criminal Defendants Vindicated in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of criminal defendants repeatedly throughout the October 2015 term, as Chemerinsky points out. Several of these cases were won by wide margins, demonstrating a trend that crossed the Court's ideological divides.

One case with a particularly far reaching impact was Montgomery v. Louisiana. In Montgomery, the Court held that its 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama should be applied retroactively. Miller found mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles to be cruel and unusual punishment. Montgomery means that thousands of prisoners sentenced prior to Miller can now benefit from the ruling.

Another major win for criminal defendants was also a case about retroactive application. In Welch v. United States, the Court ruled, 7-1, that its invalidation of the "residual clause" in the Armed Career Criminal Act applies retroactively. Last year, the Court struck down that clause as unconstitutionally vague, in Johnson v. United States. Like Montgomery, those sentenced before Johnson can now reap the benefits of that ruling.

And then there were the non-retroactive cases. In Foster v. Chatman, the Court did what so many other courts never do: it found a Batson violation. It was a needed reaffirmation of Batson's so often unrealized promise, that defendants should be tried by a jury whose composition was made free of racial discrimination.

Some Losses and What the Future Holds

But, of course, not all decisions were in favor of criminal defendants. In Utah v. Strieff, the Court undermined the long-established exclusionary rule, allowing evidence to be used when seized pursuant to a valid warrant discovered during an illegal stop. That case was perhaps the Court's most publicized criminal decision of the term, as much for the impact of the ruling as for Justice Sotomayor's stirring dissent.

So what's ahead for the Court? "Since 1960, 78 is the average age at which a Supreme Court justice has left the bench," Chemerinsky writes. "There will be three justices 78 or older when the next president is inaugurated in 2017."

So expect to see the Court change even further in the near future.

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