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March 01, 2014

Justices Sotomayor and Breyer Criticize Judicial Override in Alabama

In November 2013, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer criticized Alabama’s use of judicial overrides in an unusual dissent from a denial of a petition for certiorari. The jury in Mario Woodward’s capital case had initially voted 8-4 to recommend a life sentence, but the judge presiding over his trial overrode that recommendation and sentenced him to death instead. Alabama is one of only three states in which a judge can override a jury verdict and the only one in which life verdicts are frequently changed to death sentences. The Supreme Court upheld Alabama’s override statute in 1995, when three other states had similar statutes and more regularly overrode life verdicts. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Breyer in the first two parts of her dissent, wrote that the Court should reconsider its decision because Alabama has become an outlier over the past two decades.

After assessing the decline of overrides in other states, Justice Sotomayor expressed concern over the cause of Alabama’s “distinct proclivity” for changing life verdicts to death sentences: “Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.” Justice Sotomayor noted that one Alabama judge, who had personally overridden six life verdicts, campaigned on his record of presiding over criminal cases, expressly naming some of the defendants he was responsible for sending to death row. Justice Sotomayor wrote that “[b]y permitting a single trial judge’s view to displace that of a jury representing a cross-section of the community, Alabama’s sentencing scheme has led to curious and potentially arbitrary outcomes” and that the results “do not square with our Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.”

In a subsequent section not joined by Justice Breyer, Justice Sotomayor stated that Mr. Woodward’s petition also raised concerns that Alabama violates the Court’s Sixth Amendment jurisprudence in Apprendi v. New Jersey and Ring v. Arizona, which “made clear that ‘capital defendants, no less than noncapital defendants, . . . are entitled to a jury determination of any fact’” that could increase their maximum punishment. Because of the changes in the Court’s interpretations of the Sixth and Eighth Amendments since it upheld Alabama’s override statute in 1995, Justice Sotomayor wrote that the justices “owe the validity of Alabama’s system a fresh look” and that she would grant certiorari.