April 01, 2020

Supreme Court Updates

Supreme Court Updates

Below is a list of all capital cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as cases with possible implications for capital defendants, death row inmates, and victims of crime. Recent decisions of the court are also listed below. The cases are organized by subject matter:

Pending Decisions

Recent Decisions


Pending Decisions (Fall 2009 & Spring 2010)


Pottawattamie County v. McGhee :
Whether a prosecutor may be subjected to a civil trial and potential damages where the s/he allegedly violated a criminal defendant’s “substantive due process” rights by procuring false testimony during the criminal investigation, introduction of that same testimony against the criminal defendant at trial, which then results in a wrongful conviction. Respondents McGhee and Harrington spent over 20 years incarcerated before the Iowa Supreme Court vacated Harrington’s conviction after it learned that the prosecution failed to disclose exculpatory evidence (McGhee plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of time served).

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Defense Counsel/Sixth Amendment

Padilla v. Kentucky:
Whether mandatory deportation that results from a guilty plea to trafficking in marijuana is a "collateral consequence" that relieves counsel of an affirmative duty to advise his client per the guarantees of the Sixth Amendment. See also
Wood v. Allen

Holland v. Florida :
Whether “gross negligence” by collateral counsel, which directly results in the late filing of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus can qualify as an exceptional circumstance warranting equitable tolling, or whether, in conflict with other circuits, the Eleventh Circuit was proper in determining that factors beyond “gross negligence” must be established before an extraordinary circumstance can be found that would warrant equitable tolling.

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Habeas Corpus - What level of deference must federal courts give state court decisions under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)?

McDaniel v. Brown :
Whether, on federal habeas review, sufficiency-of-the–evidence claims under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) permit a federal habeas court to expand the record or consider nonrecord evidence to determine the reliability of testimony and evidence given at trial.

Smith v. Spisak :
Whether the Sixth Circuit contravened the directives of AEDPA, (which provides that a federal court may grant a state prisoner’s habeas petition if the state court adjudication “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law”), when it concluded that the Ohio Supreme Court had incorrectly rejected Spisak’s jury instruction and ineffective assistance of counsel claims. The State claims that AEDPA permits habeas relief only when a state court ruling is “contrary to” “clearly established” Supreme Court precedent and that in this case, there was no clearly established Supreme Court precedent addressing the issue upon which the federal court (6 th Cir. Ct of Appeals) granted relief.

Wood v. Allen :
Whether the state court’s decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts when it held that, during the sentencing phase of a capital case, an inexperienced defense attorney’s failure to pursue or present evidence regarding the defendant’s impaired mental functioning was a strategic decision when the record before it demonstrates otherwise. The Court also granted certiorari in Wood to clarify whether the federal courts abdicate their judicial review function under AEDPA when a habeas court focuses only on whether there is clear and convincing evidence in the record to rebut certain findings of fact rather than determining if the state court’s decision is unreasonable in light of the entire state court record.

Beard v. Kindler :
“...is a capital case with an unusual twist: the defendant appealing his sentence, Joseph Kindler, escaped twice from prison. A Pennsylvania state court held, and the state supreme court agreed, that Kindler waived his right to appeal when he fled. But the Third Circuit disagreed and affirmed the district court’s grant of habeas relief. In Beard, the Court will consider when state courts have resolved an inmate’s claims on 'adequate grounds' such that federal courts may not review that inmate’s habeas claims. In particular, the Court will consider whether a state procedural default rule like Pennsylvania’s is 'inadequate' solely because it is discretionary” (direct quote from SCOTUSblog).
UPDATE: U.S. Supreme Court opinion available here. The Court held that a discretionary state procedural rule is adequate to bar habeas relief.

Berghuis v. Smith :
Whether the Sixth Circuit erred in concluding that the Michigan Supreme Court failed to apply “clearly established Federal law” under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on the issue of the fair cross section requirement under Duren where the Sixth Circuit adopted the comparative-disparity test (for evaluating the difference between the numbers of African-Americans in the community as compared to the venires), which this Court has never applied and which four circuits have specifically rejected.

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Juvenile Life Without Parole

Graham v. Florida :
Whether the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits the imprisonment of a juvenile for life without the possibility of parole as punishment for the juvenile’s commission of non-homicide crime.

Sullivan v. Florida :
Whether the imposition of life without parole on a thirteen-year-old for a non-homicide violates the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

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Recent Decisions

Defense Counsel/Sixth Amendment

Bobby v. Van Hook, 558 U.S.(2009) :
Finding that the respondent’s counsel met the constitutional minimum of competence required by the Sixth Amendment. The Federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit should have relied on the prevailing standards for determining effectiveness of counsel at the time of the capital defendant’s original trial in 1985, not the standards promulgated by the American Bar Association in 2003.

Harbison v. Bell, 129 S.Ct. 1481 (2009) :
A certificate of appealability pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 2253(c) (1) (A) is not required to appeal an order denying a request for federally appointed counsel because 2253(c)(1)(A) only governs final orders that dispose of a habeas corpus proceeding’s merits. In addition, section 3599 authorizes federally appointed counsel to represent their clients in state clemency proceedings and entitles them to compensation for that representation.

Schriro v. Landrigan, 127 S.Ct. 1933 (2007) :
The defense counsel’s failure to present mitigating evidence during sentencing phase did not deprive petitioner of effective assistance of counsel and the habeas review on the claim that petitioner failed to make an “informed and knowing” decision not to present mitigating evidence was procedurally barred because he failed to properly develop it in the state courts.

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Constitutionality of State Capital Sentencing Regime

Oregon v. Guzek, 546 U.S. 517 (2006) :
Neither the Eighth nor the Fourteenth Amendment grants a capital murder defendant a right to present additional alibi evidence at re-sentencing that was inconsistent with his prior conviction during the guilt-innocence phase.

Kansas v. Marsh, 548 U.S. 163 (2006) :
Kansas’ death penalty statute, consistent with the Constitution, may direct imposition of the death penalty when the State has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the mitigators do not outweigh aggravators, including where the two are in equipoise.

Brown v. Sanders, 546 U.S. 319 (2006) :
The jury’s consideration of two of four special (aggravating) circumstances later to be found invalid was “inconsequential” and does not give rise to a constitutional violation warranting habeas relief.

Ayers v. Belmontes, 549 U.S. 7 (2006) :
The factor (k) instruction, which permits the jury to consider “evidence that bears upon the commission of the crime by the defendant and excuses or mitigates his culpability for the offense,” is consistent with the constitutional right to present mitigating evidence in capital sentencing proceedings and allows a jury to consider forward-looking mitigating factors such as the possibility of rehabilitation.

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District Attorney’s Office for Third Judicial District v. Osborne, 129 S.Ct. 2308 (2009) :
The ruling of Brady v. Maryland, holding that there is a prosecutorial duty to disclose exculpatory evidence, does not extend to the post-conviction context and Alaska law governing procedures for post-conviction relief did not violate prisoner’s due process rights. Also, assuming Osborne’s claims can be pursued using Section 1983, he has no constitutional right to obtain post-conviction access to the State’s evidence for DNA testing.

House v. Bell, 547 U.S. 518 (2006):
Petitioner made stringent showing required by the actual innocence exception to the procedural bar rule that, in light of new evidence, it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Holmes v. South Carolina, 547 U.S. 319 (2006) :
A defendant’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and Sixth Amendment right to confrontation and compulsory process are violated by an evidence rule under which the defendant may not introduce evidence of third-party guilt if the prosecution has introduced forensic evidence that, if believed, strongly supports a guilty verdict.

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Snyder v. Louisiana, 128 S.Ct. 1203 (2008) :
The prosecutor’s reasons for striking a prospective black juror were pretext for racial discrimination and the trial court erred when they rejected the Batson objection to the strike of Mr. Brooks, a potential African-American juror.

Uttect v. Brown, 127 S.Ct 2218 (2007) :
There is no requirement in a case involving a Witherspoon-Witt analysis (relating to the ability of prospective jurors to impose a death sentence) that a state appellate court make particular reference to each juror’s excusal. Furthermore, the state trial court was within its discretion in granting the state’s motion to excuse juror for cause.

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Judicial Independence

Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 536 U.S. 765 (2002) :
The Minnesota Supreme Court canon, the announce clause, which prohibits a candidate for a judicial office from announcing his or her views on disputed legal or political issues, violates the First Amendment.