December 27, 2019

SCOTUS Fall 2019: Pending Cases

McKinney v. Arizona, No. 18-1109

This term, the Court heard arguments in a case examining whether courts must apply current law to a case that has been remanded after a grant of habeas relief. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, considering Arizona death row prisoner James McKinney’s habeas petition, vacated Mr. McKinney’s death sentence due to the Arizona courts’ history of systematically failing to consider non-statutory mitigating evidence, in violation of Eddings v. Oklahoma. After finding that the courts had therefore not considered mitigating evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder from Mr. McKinney’s horrific childhood, the Ninth Circuit ordered the lower courts to correct this constitutional error. In response, the State asked the Arizona Supreme Court to conduct a “new independent review” of Mr. McKinney’s sentence. Mr. McKinney opposed, arguing that he was entitled to return to trial court for a full resentencing. The parties agreed that if the Ninth Circuit’s order required resentencing, or if the order reopened direct appeal proceedings, those proceedings would have to follow current law—which requires a sentence imposed by a jury rather than a judge pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona. The State argued, however, that the error identified by the Ninth Circuit could be corrected by the state court in a post-conviction appellate proceeding. Post-conviction proceedings typically do not receive the benefit of changes in the law, and Ring was decided after Mr. McKinney’s original direct appeal ended. The Arizona Supreme Court granted the State’s motion and affirmed Mr. McKinney’s death sentence, also finding that Ring did not apply. Mr. McKinney argued that this new order bore all the hallmarks of a direct appeal, including the same method of analysis and use of the same docket number from the first time the case was heard on direct appeal.

The U.S. Supreme Court has granted certiorari on two interrelated issues raised by the Arizona Supreme Court’s actions: whether the court should have applied the current law in resentencing proceedings, rather than the law in place when the sentence first became final, and whether Eddings error can be corrected through appellate review, as was done here, or whether it requires resentencing in the trial court. The circuits are split on both issues. Argument took place on December 11.

Mathena v. Malvo, No. 18-217

On October 16, 2019, the Court heard arguments in Mathena v. Malvo, another case that has important implications for how and when prisoners can receive the benefit of new Supreme Court decisions. The case arose from a dispute about the sentence of life imprisonment without parole given to Lee Boyd Malvo, who was 17 at the time of his crimes. Under the Virginia law that governed Mr. Malvo’s 2004 capital trial, the jury could recommend either death or life without parole. In the years following, the U.S. Supreme Court first banned the juvenile death penalty and then in Miller v. Alabama banned mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences. Miller specified that such sentences should be given rarely and only after taking into account certain considerations about the defendant’s age and the crime. A few years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court further held that the Miller prohibition should be applied retroactively to sentences that were in place before that decision. Accordingly, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit remanded Mr. Malvo’s case for resentencing in 2018. Opposing this remand, the State argued that the Miller decision was only about mandatory life without parole sentences and that Mr. Malvo’s life sentence was not mandatory when it was imposed.

The State reasoned that because Virginia law did not explicitly require that Mr. Malvo be sentenced to life without parole at his original trial, he should not benefit from the rule announced in Miller. At oral argument, the justices and advocates examined Miller’s reach, as well as whether Mr. Malvo’s life sentence was actually discretionary, and whether the judge or jury had the opportunity to consider the sentencing factors mandated by Miller.

Ramos v. Louisiana, No. 18-5924

On October 7, 2019, the Court heard arguments in Ramos v. Louisiana, which examined whether the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts in states’ criminal trials. Only two states, Louisiana and Oregon, lack this requirement. The last time the Court took up this question, in 1972 in Apodaca v. Oregon, it left in place an inconsistent system in which federal and state criminal trials are subject to different unanimity rules. In a fractured decision with no majority opinion, Apodaca announced the rule that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous verdicts in federal felony trials, but not in state trials. These opposing applications of the Sixth Amendment's jury trial right stand in contrast to the other constitutional amendments found in the Bill of Rights, which have been applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment in the same way as they apply to the federal government. The justices’ questions centered on the stare decisis doctrine and whether a ruling in Mr. Ramos’s favor would require overruling the Court’s prior precedent, and whether such a ruling would necessarily further change the trial landscape by also requiring juries of no fewer than 12 people.

Kahler v. Kansas, No. 18-6135

James Kahler has been on Kansas’s death row since 2009, when he was convicted of killing four of his family members. Though Mr. Kahler’s trial featured expert testimony about his mental illness at the time of the shooting, he was unable to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, as Kansas is one of five states that has abolished the insanity defense. In most states, Mr. Kahler could have used insanity as an affirmative defense—that is, even if he committed the crime, he did not know right from wrong due to his mental illness and therefore was not culpable. Under Kansas law, however, whether Mr. Kahler had the moral capacity for the crime was irrelevant. For defendants like Mr. Kahler, the only option is to argue that they lacked the required mental state for the crime—here, the intent to kill. Mr. Kahler’s advocates have argued that a mentally ill defendant could form the intent to commit a crime but still lack the capacity to judge between right and wrong, allowing the criminally insane to nonetheless be convicted.

The U.S. Supreme Court took up the question of whether Kansas’s insanity defense abolition was constitutional. At oral arguments, Justice Alito voiced concern about the broad implications of Mr. Kahler’s proposed rule, under which a defendant could not be convicted if, due to his mental disorder, he believed his actions were moral. Justice Alito cited the statistic that “one in five people in the United States has some mental disorder.” Justice Gorsuch similarly wondered if an insanity defense would need to be available for all felonies, or even more widely to encompass misdemeanors. Justice Kavanaugh pushed back against the contention that Kansas had abolished the insanity defense at all, calling that a “misnomer” and emphasizing that, even without a separate insanity defense, juries can consider mental status in deciding criminal intent.

Justices Sotomayor and Breyer, meanwhile, expressed concerns about the limited scope of the inquiry under current Kansas law. They questioned Kansas’s solicitor general about defendants not encompassed by the current rule, such as someone who believes they are commanded by voices or claims that a dog told them to commit murder. Both of these mentally ill hypothetical defendants would have intended to kill, and therefore would have the necessary criminal intent for a conviction as the law stands. Justice Kagan echoed these questions by noting that, historically, conviction of a mentally ill defendant required more than simply showing that he possessed the intent to kill.